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)


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

Enough already with serving the Mass, have to get home to recite why this night is different from other nights – the Passover

In My conversion to Roman Catholicism and why I left, I explained why I converted to Roman Catholicism. During my second year at the University of Cape Town, at the age of 19, I was baptised into the Catholic Church. Kolbe house, the Cape Town University Catholic Society and Residence, became my new heimKolbe House is located on a small estate about 200 metres from the Main Road, Rondebosch.

Walk up the steps across the veranda and straight into the big lounge, behind which is a small library, which could be separated by a curtain because the library also served as a stage for Kolbe student concerts in which I sang favourites such as “A certain smile” (Johnny Mathis version) and “Love is a many splendid thing” (Nat King Cole). On the right of the lounge is a set of folding doors that opened on to the little chapel. After lectures, I would spend many afternoons at Kolbe House, browsing through the books in the library that nobody else read, while waiting for other students to arrive on whom I could impress myself. Most of my peers, like most students, were more interested in bonding over a beer, not necessarily in that order.

Isn’t that what much conversation is about; bonding – and beering? According to Naom Chomsky and Gilbert Ryle, the primordial function of language is self expression – pressing yourself on to others. 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 Chomsky – I suppose. (Theological Aphasia and Language as Communion).

There was another Jewish student Andrew (not his real name), who was taking instruction with me in the Catholic faith at Kolbe House, the university residence and chaplaincy. Father Peter Paul Feeney was the chaplain and our instructor in the faith. At the end of our instruction, Fr Peter Paul baptised us together.

Andrew was my physical antithesis. I was blond and lanky; he, dark hair and short. Don Quixote and Sancho. During our year of Catholic instruction together at Kolbe House, Andrew and I used to spend time sharing our joy in our new found faith – two wondering Jews wandering no more. I had rented a room in a quiet part of Rondebosch near Kolbe House. Andrew lived in the main residence on campus. Whenever Andrew talked about Catholic things, his voice quivered, his eyes shone; he was in love. I was not too far behind him. He had a special love for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many Catholics tend to gravitate to the mother of Jesus more than to her Son. This is generally true not only of born Catholics but also of converts. There’s just something special about “Mother”, Ma-me-le (Yiddish). If you can have a heavenly father, why can’t you have a heavenly mother. Mary’s role for Catholics, though, is far more than that, as several papal encyclicals make clear. For example:Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself “in the middle,” that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she “has the right” to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession: Mary “intercedes” for mankind. And that is not all. As a mother she also wishes the messianic power of her Son to be manifested, that salvific power of his which is meant to help man in his misfortunes, to free him from the evil which in various forms and degrees weighs heavily upon his life. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater: On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the life of the Pilgrim Church, 1987.03.25).

A man knows about courage, truth, strength, wrath, but what does he understand about gentleness, lovingness, virgin purity and affection? That’s the woman’s domain, isn’t it? Mary, the meek, loving, obedient highly favoured woman, pierced by sorrow becomes the Mother of God, “Can we not feel that it must have been so right…a living object of devotion, faith and hope” (F.W. Robertson, 1924. “The Glory of the Virgin Mother” in Sermons on Bible Subjects, p. 224. Everyman’s Library). Bernard of Clairvaux brought a new emphasis to the mother of Jesus, exalting her to “Queen of Heaven” and intercessor between Christ and the Church. Here is Bernard: “The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die.” So, only if the mother of Jesus gives his Son permission to save, can he do so. When I was a devout Catholic, I used to feel that it was so. I never cared about biblical exegesis. Like most Catholics, I didn’t read the Bible much. There was no need to; the Church said it was so, and that was that. Besides, the mother of Jesus had that feminine touch that no man – not even Jesus – could match. But is this true? The Son of Man was a perfect embodiment of both the masculine and the feminine of humanness.

There is also, of course, the Mother tongue. Language teachers, translators, and linguistic scientists (linguists) are especially interested in the “syntactic joints and “semantic flesh” of the Mother tongue (Johnson, Barbara. 1985 Taking Fidelity Philosophically. In: Difference in Translation In: Graham, J.F. (ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press).Of particular interest to Bible translators are the problems in translation of biblical texts from the original (Mother) tongue.

But Mary is more than a tongue; “she is the neck of Our Head [Christ], by which He communicates to His mystical body all spiritual gifts” (Bernadine of Sienna, (Quadrag. de Evangel. aetern. Serm. x., a. 3, c. iii.).quoted in the encyclical AD DIEM ILLUM LAETISSIMUM (English: Until that Joyful Day) on the Immaculate Conception, of Pope Pius X, Feb 1904). In the Catholic order of mediation between God and man, if Christ the Head is the Mediator between the Father and man, Mary, the neck, is the mediatrix between the Head (Christ) and man. (I discuss the mother of Jesus in more detail in Mary highly-favoured mother of the Son of God.

After my baptism, I attended Mass every evening at the little chapel of Kolbe House. As far as I knew, my parents had no idea of, or interest in, my personal life. We never discussed religious matters. A few months after my baptism, I was elected to the Kolbe committee as member in charge of “spiritual activities.” The role involved being available at daily mass. Quite a logical appointment seeing that I was one of the few Kolbe-ites who attended daily mass.

I was also Father Peter Paul Feeney’s altar boy for the three holy days of Easter. The Last Supper was probably Jesus’ last Passover meal. He ate it on the first day of the Passover, “the day of Unleavened Bread on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed’” (Luke 22:7). Christ was crucified a few hours before the first evening of Passover. It’s not certain on which day of the week the Passover fell for that particular year. The evidence seems to indicate a Thursday. But it’s not so important to know the exact day. What is important is, firstly, the historical and religious fact that Jesus died – was born to die – on a cross; and rose from the dead; and, secondly, to know why He died. I consider those two facts to be the most crucial facts in human history questions, and consequently of my history.

My parents expected me to attend the Passover seder (ritual feast). On one of these Holy Week days, my parents’ were waiting for me to arrive at the family seder to recite the first portion of the Haggadah, the “Ma Nishtana” – a set of four questions sung during the Passover seder. It is sung by the youngest available male member of the family. As the youngest male in the family – my brother, Benny, was living in Israel – I had to start the festivities.(The Haggadah (Hebrew: הַגָּדָה‎, “telling”) sets forth the order of the Passover service (seder). Reading the Haggadah fulfills the Scriptural commandment to the Jew to “tell your son” of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as related in the Book of Exodus. The family had moved from Claremont to Sea Point.

Sea Point is a bus ride of at least three quarters of an hour from Kolbe House in Rondebosch. So, if I leave in 15 minutes I’ll only get to Sea Point at about 8 pm.

Why was Fr Peter Paul taking so long to finish everything! After all it was a Low Mass. In a Low Mass, the priest reads, but doesn’t sing, and the ritual is much simpler and shorter. “The Low Mass, explains the Catholic Forum, was a basic Mass, with the bare (no, not bear) necessities. The High Mass was a more solemn Mass, and it had music, and all the other “smells, bells, and whistles” as they say. It also requires more servers and deacons assisting the priest saying the Mass. It was basically a more ceremonious way of saying the Mass.”

Mass and Passover; I was in a real Passover pickle at Kolbe House. Alphonse Daudet’s “The three low masses” comes to mind. It is about a priest whose enthusiasm (en theos “in God”) for gourmet dishes brings him into confrontation with Satan. The story begins with the priest reverend dom Balaguère (if he was a Jewish priest, he would be reverend dom Bagelère) enquiring of his clerk Garrigou (Satan in disguise) about the preparations for the after-Mass feast.

“Two truffled turkeys, Garrigou?” “Yes, reverend Father, two magnificent turkeys stuffed with truffles. There’s no mistake, for I helped to stuff them myself. The flesh almost cracked as they roasted, it was so tight–so—-” “Holy Virgin! and I, who love truffles as—-Hurry; give me my surplice, Garrigou. And what else besides the turkeys; what else did you see in the kitchen?” “Oh! all sorts of good things. Since noon we’ve done nothing but pluck pheasants, pewits, wood-hens, and heath-cocks. Feathers are scattered thick. Then from the pond they’ve brought eels and golden carp and trout, and—-” “What size are the trout, Garrigou?” “Oh, as big as that! reverend Father. Enormous!” “Heavens, I seem to see them! Have you put the wine in the flasks?” “Yes, reverend Father, I’ve put the wine in the flasks. But what’s a mouthful or two as you go to midnight Mass! The priest rushes throughout the three Masses. “But how can he go any faster? He scarcely moves his lips, he pronounces fully not a single word. He tries to cheat the good God altogether of His Mass, and that is what brings his ruin. By temptation upon temptation, he begins to jump one verse, then two. Then the epistle is too long–he does not finish it; skims the Gospel, passes by the creed without even entering, skips the pater, salutes from afar the preface, and by bounds and jumps precipitates himself into eternal damnation, always following the infamous Garrigou (_vade retro, Satanas_[“Get behind me Satan”]), who seconds him with marvellous skill; tucks up his chasuble, turns the leaves two by two, disarranges the music-desk, reverses the flagons, and unceasingly rings the bell more and more vigorously, more and more quickly.”

At the Kolbe House Mass, my churning brain was not thinking at all of that other altar, the laden passover table anxiously fixed on the front door waiting for its alter ego to arrive. Priest: Benedìcat vos omnipotens Deus, Pater, et Filius et Spìritus Sanctus. (May almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit). All: Amen.

The Mass is ended, go in peace. Ite Missa est, which means “Go, you are sent forth.” Missa does not mean “Mass,” but “sent forth” as in missive, missile. I was flying out of there like one. But, no it was not to be. The Mass was over, but like all altar boys, I had no pass; I had to remain to put things away. Done. I leaped down the steps of Kolbe House (see photo; for the steps, not the leaping), took the short cut through a gap in the copse, and dashed down the road to wait for the bus to Sea Point.

I opened the door of the flat. Fanny, my mother: “Where have you been, the food is getting cold.” I installed the Yamulke on my head, opened the Haggadah and sang:

Ma nishtana ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot? Why is this night different from all other nights?

Indeed, very different.

I made only one tape recording of the voices of my parents; it was of this passover night. I still have the tape in my possession. I listened to a snatch of it about five decades ago. I can’t bring myself to listen to more of it – yet. The bit I listened to brought painfully home to me my snivelling deportment in the presence of Issy, my father.

Mind your marbles

The wandering Jew by definition rambles. In the previous few posts I strayed off the path of my biography proper into the lives of the Herzls. But this Herzl interlude was more than a ramble; it is a preramble to the rest of my life story. All the main themes of my bography are sewn into the hem of those frayed lives. This will become clearer when I return to Hans Herzl later on.

In an earlier post, I described my early school years after leaving the Cape Jewish Orphanage. At the end of that post, I mentioned that after two years (1951-1952) at the Homestead in Wellington, I returned to my Claremont home where I lived for the next three years (Jan 1953 to Dec 1955). I attended Wynberg Junior and High Schools. I now describe the year I spent at Wynberg Junior School.

Wynberg is a suburb of the city Cape Town, about 10 kilometres from the centre of the city. The suburb has a rich architectural and cultural heritage. Its beginnings are owed to the freshwater stream that wandered down to the Diep River. The surrounds of this stream developed into fertile farmlands where a village was established along the banks of the stream. Wynberg means Wine Mountain. It has preserved a lot of architecture from the 1800’s, which can be seen in the churches, schools, stately homes, and cottages. Many of these cottages are now shops, art galleries, picture framers and antique shops. Other cottages are tucked away in quiet little streets.

The picture, however, is not so rosy today, but you wouldn’t think so if you were to believe this description of Wynberg from a tourist blurb:

“Drive around the village of Wynberg, and the little streets delight with quaint cottages, tangled trees and bushes that create wonderful little havens away from the bustle of the city.” Today, many of those little havens are far from heavenly. Those tangled trees and bushes are now the criminal’s hiding place. Burglaries are common in the suburb.  A year ago, my daughter Natasha, husband and children were living in one of those quaint cottages in one of those delightful little streets. They were burgled twice.  The tourist blurb is not talking about the real suburb, but a figment; a sublurb. Natasha and family emigrated.

Before the forced removable of residents during the Apartheid era, Wynberg was a mix of cultures and ethnic groups. Since 1994, this vibrant mix has been partly restored. Wynberg is green with several parks. In the middle of Wynberg is Maynardville Park, which is a famous  venue for its Shakesperean productions. I saw several of these while at the University of Cape Town in the 1960s.

Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established in 1841, and is the second oldest boys’ school in the South Africa: South African College Schools (SACS), also in Cape Town, is the oldest.  I played rugby against SACS when I was at Wynberg High. Wynberg Boys’ Junior and Wynberg Boys’ High operated as one school for over a century. In 1943, a separate Wynberg Boys’ Junior School was established. The Junior School was situated right next to the High School. In 1953, I entered the Junior School into Grade 5.

Hendrik Verwoerd, a former Prime Minister of South Africa attended Wynberg Boys High. I mentioned Dr Verwoerd in the “Cape Jewish Orphanage days”. So far I have two things in common with Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid: the Orphanage and Wynberg School. But there’s actually a third thing I have in common with Dr Verwoerd. It is this: I never protested against apartheid – mea bulka. (mea culpa – Latin for “my fault;” bulka is a Jewish egg bun). In the “new” South Africa (since 1994 when a black government came into power)  it is almost impossible to find a South African – Afrikaner or English  – who had promoted or (tacitly) approved of apartheid before 1994.

Why some events stick in the mind and others melt away remains a mystery. Yet because I live in a mindful universe, there is good reason why I remember the marbles so vividly – and why I take such care to do them proud.

My happiest memories at Wynberg Junior were the marble tournaments during break time. You didn’t just “play” marbles; the Marble Games took on Olympian proportions. The inner braiding of each marble was consummate art, meticulous science, deep mathematics, ardent poetry – a release from the tedium of the classroom, a fair attitude, a renewal, a Te Deum[1] to truth and beauty; Keats[2] come alive.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede (braiding)

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It was not just the quantity, nor the size of the marbles, but also their chromatic variety. They were not merely objects of play. Every facet – size, sparkle, and sphericity – was exquisite. The slightest flaw diminished their value. And yet, how could you win more marbles unless you were prepared to abuse your own.

At break time, the wandering Jew rambles the schoolyard rattling his marbles, like Izzy, my father, jingling his invigorating pocketful of loose change. The dull thuds of marble against marble bear witness to this onedaringjew’s singleminded intention. When predictable dull thuds fall on deaf ears, he warbles “Plaaaay me maaarbles.” They come. We play. Draw a chalk ring on the tarmac. Spread a few of your marbles in the middle of the ring. Your partner squats on the perimeter. He bends the thumb of his right hand and curls his forefinger over the tip of the thumb. With the left hand, he places a marble in a flicking position behind the thumbnail of the right hand. He squats and places his left hand, extended fingers in a parachute position, firmly down on the ground. Locking the marble firmly in position twixt bent thumb and curled forefinger, he swivels his wrist inward and rests the knuckles of his upturned right hand on the roof of the parachute. He squats lower, knees digging into his horizontal rib cage, neck cranked upward. He aims, shoots his thumb outward, propelling his missile at the nonchalant marbles lazing on the tarmac. As I am not only a onedaringjew, but also a left-handed onedaringjew, the whole process would have to work in reverse: I bend the thumb of my left hand…

The marbles that I knock out of the ring, I keep. If my marble doesn’t flick any out of the ring or I miss the marbles altogether, I lose my marble. After an agreed time or number of flicks, we exchange roles. Each has a turn to win or lose his marbles.

The best game was “marble pyramids”. No one’s countenance shone more than he with the hefty bag of marbles, for he was the only geezer who had the resources to build a Khufu Pyramid. The bigger the pyramid, the more visible and inviting it appeared. If your marble managed to collapse the pyramid – a tall order – the pyramid was yours. You could build any size pyramid depending on how many marbles you had or were willing to use. The smallest pyramid requires five marbles – four on the ground and one on top. A bigger pyramid requires more support around its base. The rough surface of the tarmac could support a pyramid of about 12 marbles without any danger that the base would give way. But what if the pyramid is much bigger? Some pyramids had a hundred marbles or more. If you try and build it up too high on the tarmac, it could collapse, scattering your marbles across the free-for-all schoolyard. To prevent this catastrophe, the bigger marbles formed the base. You then hem the base with sand. To increase the odds for such a huge pile, the thrower had to stand almost at the other end of the playground. The boy with the pyramid usually came off best; he was a statistician.  Because of the great distance between thrower and pyramid, it rarely toppled. But if you did manage it, there would be one very delighted and highly winner and one very crestfallen pyramid builder, who had – unstatistically – lost all his marbles.

Marbles are like facts. Take a handful of marbles; throw them on the ground, Repeat the procedure as many times as you like, you won’t repeat the pattern. In fact, you’ll have no pattern at all because a pattern is, by definition, repeatable. We can know about natural laws because our minds are in sync with the world outside our minds. But postmodernists, of course, would disagree. If I’m modern, my brain perceives what is really out there; if I’m one step ahead of modern – if I’m “post” modern– my brain would be out of sync with the world out there; in fact, my brain would not be in sync with my brain; indeed, my brain would not be in sync with any of the fortuitous words I speak. I’d have lost my m#$%^&bles – plain and pimple.

[1] A hymn of praise composed in the 6th century. Te Deum laudamus “To God we give praise” are the first words of the hymn. A Te Deum may also be a short ceremony of blessing.

[2] His “Ode to a Grecian urn.”