Thursday, December 30, 2010

Robert Price Regarding Jesus in Jewish Context

In the present ecumenical climate, in which, thankfully, Jews and Christians are working to overcome their long hostility, there is a tendency among Christian and Jewish scholars alike to maximize the connection between the two faiths (something amenable to the Christian apologetical agenda, since this trend minimizes possible influences on early Christianity from Hellenistic Mystery Religions or Gnosticism). An important part of this interfaith program is to make Jesus as conventional a Jew as possible. In my opinion, such a move is more of a construction of Christology than a sketch of the historical Jesus. That is, it is an attempt to come up with a Christian "Jesus Christ" that will prove more useful for ecumenical dialogue. The a priori character of the whole endeavor is evident from the way such scholars simply assume that the gospel stories and sayings must be interpreted in Jewish categories even when there are as good or better paradigms available to make sense of the sayings, for example, Cynic or Gnostic. As long as there is a Jewish parallel available, even when forced, these scholars will automatically prefer it. This is theological reasoning, not historical criticism (Price, p. 247, italics mine).

My favorite biblical scholar and atheist, Robert Price here does an excellent job exposing what is at the heart of the "Jewish roots" of Jesus movement—an attempt at ecumenism (commendable as that may be) and a veiled attempt to set forth "Jewish roots" as the way to reveal the historical Jesus. As Price points out, there are often better Cynic, Gnostic, or Mystery Religion parallels to the platitudes and the actions of Jesus in the gospels than the Jewish ones a priori esteemed to the exclusion of all others. As healthy as the ecumenism between Christianity and Judaism has been, a peace has been forged at the expense of serious Jesus scholarship among those unwilling to consider that Jesus is a recapitulation of the dying-rising man-gods of ancient lore.

Price, Robert. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. Prometheus Books, New York: 2003.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Believing Truly is Seeing

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote,

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

As I write this I think to the conversations I have and have had with fundamentalists. Frequently it is asserted that the reason that I do not accept their beliefs or see the world as they see it is that I am rebellious or willful in my desire not to accept their worldviews. "You do not believe because you do not want to." "You choose not to believe." I guess that for many my non-belief may seem to be of this stature, for indeed, I am sure, in their experiences, there is sufficient "reason" to believe. Let me explain.

The eminent psychologist of child development Jean Piaget used the concept of schema to describe a way of thinking. A schema is a category (or bucket) of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge was constructed or obtained. It should be noted that a schema can be the construal of both subjective and/or objective knowledge with the emphasis being on the personal, individual construction of this knowledge.

As one goes through life, schemas are developed to understand and explain sensory experience. A child encounters blackberries at the forest edge and is encouraged to pick and eat them. However, when the same child happens across an unknown berry, she is cautioned strongly against eating them. Hence, the child's "berry schema" is developed and expanded to include the concepts of both edible and dangerous berries. When the same child encounters another forest edible, let's say a red clover, she might very well accommodate her existing "berry schema" into a "forest-edible schema" or, she might assimilate the "berry schema" and so identify red clovers as berries. I have seen this in real life.

We all use schemas to work with the world around us. And, like the neurons in our brains, the pathways that are used the most become the strongest and the most capable of assimilating new knowledge. As a result, two people might look at the same information and come away with very different schema-based conclusions. The creationist sees in the feathered dinosaur a fraud but not a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

When a fundamentalist approaches a holy book with schemas of inspiration and inerrancy, she will find grand patterns and sublime connections reaching and branching into more and more complex intricacies. She will "see" what she believes. Her faith will become sight as she bemoans, "Why can't others see what I see?" However, her reality is constructed and contingent—the result of her chosen schemas. When challenged with morally repulsive content or scientific and historical error in the Quran, the fundamentalist will most likely not be able to see it. Instead, she will assimilate the information into existing schemas creating a forced harmony betwixt the discordant.

The fundamentalist is bound to the prison of her schemas until she accepts a critical posture to herself and to her ways of thinking, her schemas. She must face that which is discordant and allow her schemas to be accommodated to new information. Until she does this, her world will continue to develop into an intricate balance of self-deceptive complexity and concordance. However, she will only further burry her head in the sand of her own making.

Science as a methodology relies on universalizing means—peer review and reproducibility. Science is the best methodology humans have derived to correct our schemas and to free our thinking from schematic prisons.

God of Discontinuity

In my last post I touched on how the vision of holiness in the Mosaic Law was one of demographic or ethnic segregation. The Mosaic Law through the application of arbitrary rubrics of table fellowship, genital mutilation, intermarriage restrictions, and ritual purity sought to segregate (make holy) the children of Israel thus creating a discontinuity between the covenant people and the rest of humanity. The particularistic vision of the Mosaic Law is expanded somewhat in the Hebrew Prophets such that foreigners are said to one day universally succumb to the arbitrary standards of inclusion mandated in the Pentateuch (e.g., Isaiah 2:1-4; 56:1-6) in the death of pluralism and cultural diversity.

In addition to the demographic discontinuities fostered in the Mosaic Law and the Hebrew Prophets, the Bible also promotes a profound dichotomy between humanity and the cosmos. In a famous passage, the psalmist states:

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou thinkest of him? Yet Thou hast made him but little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou hast made him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: sheep and oxen, all of them, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea; whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas (Psalm 8:5-9).

In a clear reiteration of the "image of God" and the "dominion mandate" themes of the exilic priestly pericope of Genesis chapter one and likewise of the earlier Yahwist passages Genesis two and three, the psalmist here affirms that man is crowned with dominion over creation including all the animals. The late theologian turned "geologian" Thomas Berry, in speaking of how our Western, Judeo-Christian, consumeristic culture has lost its sense of connection to the natural world, speaks of our ancestors' sense of continuity with nature:

To alter this primordial sense of continuity throughout the universe seems to have been the basic purpose of biblical revelation. Within the biblical context, the continuity of divine presence with the natural world was altered by establishing the divine as a transcendent personality creating a world entirely distinct from itself. In addition, the continuity of the divine with the human was altered by the establishment of a covenant relationship based on a juridic model. The continuity between the human community and the natural world was altered by identifying the human as a spiritual being in contrast to all other beings. Only the human really belonged to the sacred community of the redeemed. The previous sense of a multi-species community was diminished (p. 51, italics mine).

The biblical texts are not solely to blame for the great divorce between humanity and the natural world. With the agricultural revolution, humanity was already expressing a growing separation from the rest of nature, but the Bible canonizes this aspect of our cultural development—it takes what is otherwise malleable and dogmatizes it. As part of this discontinuity, the Judeo-Christian tradition envisions human nature, the natural man in Pauline rhetoric, as evil and sensual, something to be combated against. In reality, human nature is as much capable of selflessness and benevolence as it is of selfishness and violence—both polarities of our nature are rooted in our evolutionary past, both are part of our connection to nature.

With emphasis on personal, spiritual redemption, the Judeo-Christian tradition dichotomizes humanity and the natural world. This often results in knee-jerk rejection of the idea that humans are animals and have non-human animal ancestry, an ancestry shared with all of life on Earth. This sense of discontinuity hence works to enslave human minds in ignorance—teaching them to deny the important sociological and biological implications of evolution. Likewise, it results in "God-Hates-Green" ethics that teach against environmental ethics (see: God Hates Green) and concern for the long-term biological health and biodiversity of Earth's biosphere.

In contrast with ethical systems based on a God of discontinuity, humanity needs to foster a globally-responsible ethic, one that takes into consideration the long-term health of humanity as part of the biosphere. We need monistic ethical systems that disdain the dichotomies of our ancestors such as are encoded and cultivated in the biblical texts.

Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: 2006.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiness as Racism

What is holiness?

The definition of the term holiness varies based on what portion of the Bible one looks to for an answer. My focus in this post will be to outline what holiness means in the Pentateuch (the Mosaic Law) and the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I will not exhaustively define this term, but I hope to show its ugliest aspect: ethnic segregation.

The Hebrew word for "holy" is qadash and it carries the primary meaning of "to [be] set apart" or "distinguished." Hence, a holy item is one that is set apart from customary or normative use. In Hebrew use, one might call any item or person set apart for a particular use "holy"—the word, it should be noted, did not carry the immediate notion of being sanctimonious or sacred unless used in ritual context.

Written by an anonymous author, the Letter of Aristeas was most likely written in the 100's BCE by a Hellenistic Jewish author. He writes at length about the Mosaic Law, and provides this succinct summary of its purpose:

In his wisdom the legislator, in a comprehensive survey of each particular part, and being endowed by God for the knowledge of universal truths, surrounded us [the Jewish people] with unbroken palisades and iron walls to prevent our mixing with any of the other peoples in any matter, being thus kept pure in body and soul…(Letter of Aristeas, 139).

The author of this treatise clearly understands one of the purposes of the Mosaic Law to be that of preventing the comingling of the covenant people with other ethnicities. Remember that an ethnicity is a racial designation but it is far more than just a reference to genetic background. Ethnicities are defined by more than race—they are also defined by religion, culture, behavior, profession, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, et. al, and I am using the term "ethnicity" in this sense. The author of the above quote sees the goal of separating the Jewish-Israelite ethos from other others as one of the goals of the Mosaic Law.

Deuteronomy 14:1-2 reads:

Ye are the children of the LORD your God… For thou art a holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be his own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the land.

In this passage we see the idea of holiness relative to the ethos of the covenant people Israel. The passage then goes on to highlight specific table habits that will foster and cultivate the segregation of the covenant people from outsiders. Notice that this chapter even allows outsiders to violate its stipulations (14:21). Holiness in this passage, and throughout the Mosaic Law, is hence not defined by good deeds but through the pursuit of separation and segregation from the heterogeneous, the outsiders, the non-Israelites or, later, the non-Jew.

Though written far after the supposed time of Moses, Deuteronomy 12 further outlines the relationship between the land-conquesting children of Israel and the first-nation Canaanites and other peoples of the Levant. Notice the following:

These are the statutes and the ordinances, which ye shall observe to do in the land which the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place…. When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: 'How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise' (12:1-3, 29-30).

Hence, not only were the children of Israel to remain separate from the heathen and heterogenous, they were to destroy them ("…thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" Deut 20:16) and all aspects and remnants of their cultures. Talk about ethnic cleansing and genocide! Destroy them—all of them—and then wipe out centuries of their cultural evolution so that it does not taint your ethos! Though the Mosaic Law does not get much worse than this, there are other explicit passages commanding ethnic segregation. Consider Deuteronomy 23:4

An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever…

The passage continues by offering similar restrictions on Egyptians and Edomites. Naturally, as any racial thinking would, the Mosaic Law justifies its racism. It demonizes and criminalizes the first-nation peoples into child sacrificers and inhospitable ingrates. The critical mind today should think twice than to accept the Mosaic Law's self-exonerations for racism….we have moved beyond this.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wisdom Regarding Religious Traditions from an Atheist

...treat Christianity just like you would any other mythic or cultural
tradition. All [...] reflect the struggle of our ancestors to determine
what is good and what is real and how to live in community with each other.
All contain a mixture of wisdom and foolishness and downright immorality.
Take what seems timeless and wise and move on. (from Creating Love and Light by Valerie Tarico)

This is how I have come to relate to my Christian traditions and upbringing. They are part of my culture, and I freely hold on to that which helps and works and jettison that which is harmful or does not work for me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting Lost – Letting Go of Certainty

This entry is far from original. Others have made use of a similar illustration; this is my iteration. It is a true story.

I am ten, and it is the middle of July boy's camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. In my relentless pursuit of all things amphibian and reptilian, my curiosity veers me away from Blair Lake and into a sphagnum moss covered old lake bed. I immediately notice a number of elusive wood frogs that jump away from me. They distract me as I enter further into a forest of ten-foot tall tamarack pines situated in deep sphagnum moss. One hundred feet into this unique bog forest ecosystem, I turn around to look back at where I came from. I am alarmed. Every direction I turn looks identical to the next—a forest of lichen covered, ten-foot tall tamarack pines shading a forest floor of sphagnum moss peppered with green ferns.

Entoloma Mushroom in Sphagnum Moss

Though surrounded in an environment rich with the raw ingredients for imagination with its Carboniferous-looking mosses and ferns, I am overtaken with anxiety. With each step the sphagnum moss completely engulfs my foot and leg up to my knee only to return to form moments after my foot exits; hence, I leave no footprints. The thought takes hold of my mind that I might be wandering in the wrong direction, entering into the hundreds of miles of state forest surrounding the camp. My heart races with the thought that I might be spending the night alone in the woods—deep in a bog forest with a thick sun-blocking canopy. I walk back the direction I think I came from.

Two minutes later, nothing has changed. Though I was sure I had turned back the way I started, every direction I look is the same. Ahead of me I hear something. It is the sound of a vehicle driving over a gravel road—now I have a bearing. Three minutes later I see the terrain changing, and I emerge onto a familiar gravel road. A vehicle passes, and I try to look calm and together though I am overtaken by relief. Turning to look back and down the slope into the forest I left, I realize how amazingly near I was to the road the entire time. In fact, I realize that the forest was interrupted by roads on at least three sides and Blair Lake on the other—there was little chance of me being lost there for long. The next day I return to the same area to catch wood frogs, and in the years to come I returned there nearly every summer.

I have discovered that life is of this nature. To learn, to really know, I must forgo knowing and certainty—I must be willing to allow myself to get lost and then to find myself. Human learning is of this nature. The scientific advancement of human knowledge could not and did not occur until the dogmatic certainties of previous generations (e.g., the Earth is the center of the solar system, Noah's Flood created fossils, the Earth is 6000 years old, etc.) were laid aside. Once the "known" is forsaken, learning can happen. Once one allows the anxieties of being lost and lost certainties to experience, then she is ready to learn.

Dogmatic certitudes will be the death of humanity. Scientific epistemologies with its always contingent approach to the world will be our species' salvation. Let go of your dogmatic certainties. Let go of what you know with absolute confidence. Embrace the contingency of what you know. Get Lost.

Friday, December 3, 2010