29 February 2008

Interfaith Seminar in Chandler tomorrow

Posted by at 2:34 PM
Saturday, March 1st, 3:00–5:00PM

Interfaith Seminar: Peace and Religion

Sponsored by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
Representatives of various religions will speak, followed by Q & A.

Free and open to the public

Chandler Public Library Auditorium
22 S Delaware St, Chandler, AZ 85225

RSVP: Zaheer Sajid 480-370-0555



speaking of exclusics/ecumenics

Posted by at 12:21 PM
Over at the Princeton multimedia archive, there's a good program with Krista Tippett, host of the NPR show "Speaking of Faith", who reads from her book of the same title. I thought I'd share this here as it touches on some of the things that recent postings on faith and/or science also have.

I like this sentence from her:
"We can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, Gross National Product, legal code, but they don't begin to tell us how to order our astonishment."
I object somewhat to her lumping economics and politics and science together as though they were equivalent. Science is quite apart from those other two. Science demands a level of predictability in experimentation which I would venture to say would disqualify those two conjectural and unpredictable enterprises as "sciences."

Still, just as on her radio show, I like the way she can engage people, both religious and secular, in conversation about this gap/interface between the religious and the mundane without setting them up as rivals.

Good stuff.
I particularly liked the comments and questions from the panel following her reading.




27 February 2008

extra-canonical addendum

Posted by at 3:45 PM
By request, here's the right side of the chart. When I went back to do this section, I realized that I had misread the color key for the previous chart, which I fixed. (note: these changes involve primarily the Johannine letters, so it has no bearing on the focus of my argument - Hebrews).

The main thing to be gleaned from this one is the fact that Hermas' canonicity is undisputed by Irenaeus. Also noteworthy (it surprised me) is just how many canonical books even Eusebius disputed.

Once again - the legend:

Accepted as canonical.
Author accepts, others dispute.
Author disputes.
Authoritative but not canonical.

26 February 2008

The Evolution of Canon

Posted by at 1:04 AM
Accepted as canonical.
Author accepts, others dispute.
Author disputes.

Some time ago I made a rough copy of a chart that I had come across which shows the development the canon underwent in formation. I'm glad I sketched it out, as it comes in handy in this discussion now. :)
So I made a quick color-coded gif to post here. The chart actually extends to the right some, to include books like The Shepperd of Hermas, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Wisdom of Solomon, among others, which were generally accepted as genuine and authoritative by the early commentators, but I kept it to these twenty-seven books for the sake of brevity here.

I did a bit of searching and found sufficient citation to support my argument from the previous post's comments.
I have emphasized the relevant bits in the following citations:.

Re Tertullian:

According to [Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1987.] p. 159:
In another treatise Tertullian cites a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews (6:4-8), which he attributes to Barnabas as the author, 'a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul had stationed next to himself'. (De pudic. 20)

Re Origen:
Throughout Origen's writings he quotes from the Epistle to the Hebrews more than 200 times, and in the vast majority of his references he is content to attribute it to Paul as its author. But near the close of his life (after 245 CE), where Origen is speaking as a scholar, he admits that the tradition of its authorship is wholly uncertain. From the composite account in [ Eusebius. The History of the Church (Ecclesiastical History)]:
In addition he makes the following statements concerning the Epistle to the Hebrews, in his Homilies upon it: 'That the character of the diction of the Epistles entitled 'To the Hebrews' has not the apostle's rudeness in speech, who acknowledged himself to be rude in speech (2 Cor. 6:6), that is, in style, but that the Epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences of style. But again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the Epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, this also everyone who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit'. Further on he adds, If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the style and composition belong to some one who remembered the apostle's teachings and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore, if any church holds that this Epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this also. For it is not without reason that the men of old time have handed it down as Paul's. But who wrote the Epistle in truth, God knows. Yet the account that has reached us [is twofold] , some saying that Clement, bishop of Rome, wrote the Epistle, and others, that it was Luke, the one who wrote the Gospel and the Acts. (6.25.11-14)

I find it curious that someone would express shock at my positing Marcion as evidence that Hebrews is not Paul's work, I think it is quite adequate and sufficient evidence—think about it, Marcion the collector and freak of all things Pauline, probably the man who inspired the "church" to establish a canon more than anyone else (the move toward establishing a canon was arguably a direct response to Marcion, in fact) has never heard of the epistle to the Hebrews. Why my suggestion (i.e. that Marcion's omission speaks against Pauline authorship) would elicit a "Wow!" is beyond me. Being that the epistle does reflect some aspects of pauline thought, there's no reason to think that Marcion knew of it but rejected it. Likewise for the Muratorian canon. Nowhere is this epistle mentioned there. So . . . why has Marcion never mentioned this text. The answer clearly is that he has never heard of it (though there IS reason to think that it predates Marcion, which only means that it wasn't attributed to Paul until right before Irenaeus's day—though even HE disputed its authenticity). This deserves more than a glossing over and dismissing it out of hand. I would welcome any alternate explanations for the silence in both Marcion and the Muratonian fragment regarding Hebrews and also for the controversy reflected in the texts regarding its authorship, where even as late as the time of Eusebius the matter is not yet either settled or even a necessary belief. Notice that this argument against Pauline authorship of Hebrews is completely independent of any analysis of the Greek subjunctives. When multiple independent trajectories of research all come to a conclusion (a kind of interdisciplinary planetary alignment) the very fact of these independently-arrived-at agreements reinforces that conclusion.



25 February 2008

monitoring a blogologue . . .

Posted by at 3:32 PM
There has been an interesting volley between James McGrath and Michael Halcomb and Ken Brown and others concerning inclusivity, exclusivity, universalism, self-identification, and how these relate to each's respective concept of "salvation." This blogologue (McGrath calls it a blogversation, and while I think that word looks better on the page, blogologue is just so much more musical, more rhythmic—say it—blahg-ah-lahg :P ) highlights the contrast between two radically different worldviews.

Upfront, I admit that I side generally with McGrath on this inclusivity. The main difference between us, I think, is that I go a step further than him in my "inclusivity"; that is, I release Jesus from his role as pre-requisite mediator in some imagined process of salvation altogether, where McG sees value in the maintenance and upkeep of the inherited traditions. He feels that the house can be cleaned up from within. I pray (as hard as a heathen can) that he makes a good dent in this (it really needs it) and I wish him luck. In fact, I think he should write books for the layman, as I think he has a way of encapsulating his ideas with clarity and cogency, ideas which I think will resound out there in the general readership.
Like McG, I find the profound insights expressed in the writings of certain Sufi and Asian mystics to reflect the perennial philosophy which is the kernel at the heart of the Christian faith (and to my eyes, of every form of higher religion). I find more solace, in fact, in the poetic, spiritual, or even just æsthetic beauty of some of these texts than I do in the New Testament.
One like Halcomb might conclude that, because I do not "confess" J as kyrios, I am "disqualified" for a salvation scheme which requires not just that I conduct myself in a certain manner, but that I adhere to some theological or epistemological allegiance. With all due respect, he comes dangerously close to relegating Christian faith to a "confession"— some talismanic magical set of beliefs which one must recite in order to gain access to god.

Who knows, maybe he's right: maybe I'm doomed to be denied "salvation" (Would someone please be so kind as to define that word in relation to this discussion? :) but I highly doubt it and in fact see worrying about such things as so much ado about nothing. To my eyes, this sense of "salvation" is just some artificial abstraction in the initiate's mind. A rationalized yearning. Nothing more.

It's not about beliefs. It's about conduct. Your conduct will reflect your faith more than your profession ever will. (see Matt 6:6+ or 7:15+ . . . or the Scribe and the sinner, etc . . .—it's a recurring theme in the texts).

In one of the latest installments, Halcomb reveals what I think is an overt credulity regarding biblical matters. He says that Paul "probably" wrote the epistle we know as Hebrews. However, as McG points out, the Greek is altogether different, which by itself is enough to conclude that Paul was not the author. More than that, though, the smoking gun for me comes indirectly from Marcion. Marcion, we know, was the Paul-freak per excellence of his day, yet Marcion's list of known Pauline letters does not include Hebrews (nor Titus nor either Timothy). Coupled with the fact that other early commentators either don't list it in their makeshift canons (Muratorian) , or they dispute its authenticity (Iraneus, Origen) or even reject it altogether (Tertullian), it's fairly clear that Paul did not write Hebrews. Saying that "he probably did" could only be based on a theological committment and does not reflect awareness of the consensus view in current scholarship.

A final note:
  • I'm surprised to see most sides of this discussion stress a distinction between "gentile" Christians and a "Jewish" variety. I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate that Paul's audience was not Jewish. Very early on, as the texts reflect all over the place, the movement was all but completely gentile in makeup by the time Paul wrote. The complete severance was already there by the time the Gospels and the later epistles came along. Paul found the example of Abraham a perfect one to convey to the god-fearers who were his primary target audience that the covenant was based on a commitment to faith in and submission to god, irrespective of cultural lineage. Paul welcomed these "inclusivists" into the Abrahamic faith without demanding the pains of what McG calls "boundary markers" (circumcision, dietary restrictions, purity code, etc). Paul's letters were not meant for "Jews" at all, but for Hellenists. The constant exhortations to uphold the Law that Paul is bent on refuting as products of an obsolete paradigm would have been unnecessary to a pious Jew. These opponents of Paul are also evidence of the contemporaneous Jewish complaint against the co-option of their tradition. After the initial commemoration of Jesus in Jerusalem was transposed through Paul's glass darkly, Christianity was almost exclusively a gentile thing. He probably wasn't alone in inventing "christology", but his are the only texts that survived unfortunately.
  • I wonder what the gentlemen engaged in this ongoing discussion think of Hyam Maccoby's general denial of Paul's "Pharisaism."
  • Also, I always object to people taking for granted that the author of Acts was the same as the author of Luke, but I realize how entrenched a convention that is.
    It's a pet peeve of mine, though, and I do my best to point out the presumption whenever I encounter it.

Anyway, I'll continue to follow along and possibly add my own comments here as the blogathon proceeds.



20 February 2008

a happy update . . .

Posted by at 1:53 PM
Some time ago (almost a couple of years now) I posted a rant against the proliferation of methamphetamine use as a result of the availability of ephedrine and similar antihistamines.

Since then, a new law was enacted that makes anyone purchasing these antihistamines (a primary ingredient in the drug's synthesis) show identification before they can purchase them.

The law has worked, it turns out.

Meth-lab busts went from almost 1,400 to only 6.

Vey nice.


current listening:
Idiot Flesh - Fancy
Eva Cassidy - Songbird


19 February 2008

Giant Steps . . .

Posted by at 1:13 AM
(or . . . my thoughts on Kurt Durston's opening statement)

John Loftus over at Debunking Christianity has posted the video footage of an "origins"/I.D. debate between Jeffrey Shallit and Kurt Durston.

The first thing I will comment on is the split-screen PowerPoint display behind the two speakers, each side of the screen showing the title page of his own demonstration.
Notably, the two titles don't match.

Behind Shallit:
"Are there good reasons for scientists to believe in supernatural beings ?"
Behind Durston:
"Should a 21st century scientist believe in God ?"

This is something that I see debaters do frequently—i.e. rephrase the question to favor their own worldview. Such little details are very telling sometimes.

I just listened to Durston's 20 minute opening and paused it to jot down some thoughts before I listen to the rest.

He restates the old argument that since nature had a beginning, then whatever is the cause of nature must be supernatural by definition, as no system can create itself. This sounds reasonable at first glance in our macroscopic/microcosmic perspective, but it necessitates accepting a priori that we can ascertain where the limits of this "nature" are. In other words, given what we know of naturally occurring infinite series, feedback loops and other peculiar mathematical "realities", any assertion that there must have been a zero hour is really grounded on an old paradigm.
But I can for the sake of argument accept that the universe must have had a "beginning" in this way.
Every effect has a cause—fine.

What I have a problem with is that, having accepted the need for such a cause, some go on to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to this imagined cause: 'There must be a first cause, and therefore it loves me. ' . . . . or . . . . . 'There must be a first cause and therefore the ancient Hebrew attempt at a description of it is literally true and part of a divine mandate for all mankind.' This kind of argument for a biblical God from cause and effect is so weak that I'm astounded that anyone falls for it at all. If anything, it reveals an intrinsic human psychological need to make God in man's image. This might not be a "delusion" but dang it if it don't come right close. Do the people who posit this kind of thing realize what an enormous leap of logic this is? The chain of reasoning—i.e. "the universe exists, therefore there was a first cause [insert giant step here] therefore God was Moses' burning bush therefore is Jesus etc."—reminds me of the famous Far Side cartoon in which two lab coated scientists are standing before a big blackboard full of mathematical equations. At a crucial point in a complex series of equations, is inserted the phrase "and then a miracle happens."

Durston opens, presenting Dembski-like "mathematical" evidence for a supernatural origin of the cosmos and confidently spinning out probabilities for the formation of protein families and amino acids in an attempt to demonstrate how unlikely it is that the proteins would have formed "accidentally". This line of argument is baffling to me too, because, if there is no identifiable frame of reference for a measurement (there isn't), then any rationalization, any further mathematical manipulation based on that measurement is but a conjecture at best. (anyone ever heard of the rules of "significant figures"?) Don't get me wrong, I'm all for back-of-the-envelope-type calculations where the thought-experiment is the point at hand instead of the empirical measurings, but using this kind of conjecture in an attempt to refute such an established and empirically observable phenomenon as the evolutionary process is another huge leap that begs questions. (Granted, this particular debate is not explicitly about creationism, but all the references to Dembski and Dover make it pretty clear—it's a duck). He brings up the concept of infinite universes as an example of a current theory that is just as unprovable as what he professes, yet is "accepted" as plausible by a wide range scientists, as if that excuses the lack of falsifiability of his idea. That just seems like a, "You guys believe in things that are not falsifiable too . . . and so this idea is plausible too." It's just a childish "not-fair!" type of argument. It's as if secular scientist X got something wrong and that that somehow proves that some rival theory (one as audacious), is therefore correct."

Big leap.

Durston closes his opening remark by appealing to his own experiences of God and the way he interacts with it and vise versa. And this is what compelled me to sound off here.

I'll let him speak for himself and intersperse my own comments as they are merited (in red):
It's interesting as you read through the Bible I could put the miracles in the Bible into three major categories. The first one is prophecy—information about the future that would require a source that transcends time. [...] Then the most powerful, I believe, is a supernatural intervention into an individual's life. Probably the most powerful—in fact when that happens you know God exists—it is also the most difficult to defend. Nevertheless, I'll just mention briefly an example of that [...] for you to think about. That has actually happened to me. My own first experience of God happened in nature. I could see that God was everywhere but yet infinitely separated from me. (Separated how? — How was this separation manifest to him - some ambiguous existential discontent?) And about that time in my life I was told, "well, the reason why God seems infinitely far from you is that you've committed moral violations that have established a barrier between you and God." Then he went on to tell me that God himself in the past had become a human being to take all moral violations of humanity upon himself to pay perfect justice for those things so that we would not have to do that ourselves and that barrier could be removed in our relationship with God. (Humanity having been humanity since the beginning, and given that even the Bible attests to the fact that man has always been a selfish, lustful, gluttonous, vengeful mess, what exactly made God wait until until Rome's occupation of Judea to decide to take up the issue of sweeping "moral violation" under-rug? What made it so suddenly necessary just then and there?) It was explained at that point that if I wanted this what I needed to do was to basically ask Jesus Christ to come into my life and take away the barrier that separates me from God and [...] give me this relationship. I said, "No." I didn't trust God at that point—I must've been afraid of him (Of course, what other reason could there be? ;P). However, I thought a lot about it over the subsequent weeks and one night as I was laying in bed I decided, 'wait a sec; if he loved me enough to do this for me, then I could trust him (in other words . . . . "and then . . . a miracle happens", like the cartoon I mentioned above. A guy is laying in bed having an existential breakdown and anxiety gives way to "faith." It happens every day. But I repeat that since religious experience is internal in form and substance, even though it "seems" external to our yearning hearts, it exists only in the synaptic firings of the penitent or the mystic or what-have-you. ). So I just asked Jesus Christ to come into my life and take away the barrier of moral violation that separate me from God and that relationship with him. And that's when I began to first experience a supernatural intervention in my life. It started small and slow, grew more powerful over the years, and I would have to say at this point in my life is the most intimate relationship I've ever experienced with anyone—and I have an excellent relationship with my wife, good relationships with my kids and my friends, but this goes far deeper. I'm aware of his presence with me throughout the day. I talk to him. He talks to me. (Really? Hmm . . . interesting anthropomorphism there - unless you want to argue that he spoke fluent American English.
o_Ó . . . )

Now, that leaves you with something. I'll just close that aspect by saying it is the most fulfilling relationship I've ever experienced (warm and fuzzy, eh?).

So you got three choices :
Number one, I'm telling a lie to get my point across. But I can tell you, if I was lying about that, there's no way I'd be here tonight. I got better things to do with my time.
I could be insane and that's a live option, but I'll leave that up to doctor Shallit here to choose between "I'm insane" or "I'm telling the truth." [laughter] (Just two choices? Isn't that a grey-less,
artificial dichotomy? Just asking. )

He doesn't even have to address this, but I toss this out because, as I said before—and I admit this—all you are hearing is me telling you this. You have no reason to believe it's true. It's the most difficult one to defend.
(I'll address it.
This is where we rub hard. I have no doubt in my mind that he believes that the feeling of euphoria and increased clarity and sense of tranquility that he and every single human being who has ever lived and gazed upon beauty with a humble heart has benefited from the encounter, comes from "without" somewhere. To our mundanity (if I could coin that for a sec), this sense of wonder seems to be the result of an external reality which is acting upon him/her from some abstract "above". But I think it is demonstrable that religious experiences are essentially nothing more than psychological events —extraordinary, maybe, but not supernatural— and are not external at all. It's as internal as it gets, in fact. Yes, the human animal does seem to have a psychological mechanism which emotionally seeks understanding of the cosmos it lives in and can attain occasional raised levels of awareness of some connection that ties us, everything, all, together. Even atheists experience this phenomenon, I think, a feeling of interconnectedness with the numinous aspect of existence, and they even find it an agreeable state of mind, a pleasant one. The problem is that, no matter how proprietary it seems, no matter how real this imagined "relationship" may seem, it is just a psychological event in the mind of just one singular person, triggered by whatever brought on this heightened sense of awareness—for me it's usually music . . . sometimes nature.
In other words, I think that all religious experiences are in our heads. Every single one. It is my sincere suspicion that all of our prayers are but packets of electrons flying through dendrites and synapses, basically. These flying electrons whirl around the brain, but they really have no means by which to reach some imagined celestial sphere "receiver." At least it seems that way to my eyes.)

But let me move on to the final one, and that's physical miracles.

I'll give you some examples:

I was raised on a beef farm out west and we had this one bull, very hard to handle; the only way we could do it was to put a steel ring through its nose and lead him around. One day I went to lead him to water and I untied him first to put the snap-ring in the ring in its nose and he immediately turned around and began to walk out of the stall and I knew that as soon as he gets his head out of that stall and he sees the cattle in the corral he's going to destroy the corral to get through to the cattle and he's gonna start breeding. [laughter] I'm trying to hold him back with all my strength. He weighs 2,000 lbs and at the time I only weighed 180. The rope was just burning through my hands; there was nothing I could do. And when there was this much left, I yelled, "God, help me!" Instantly, the bull was anchored— 2,000 lbs versus 180. I didn't feel any stronger and I don't think it had anything to do with me. If I had turned into solid steel, he could have still dragged me away. It seemed as if there was something on the rope between me and the bull but I couldn't see anything and I stood there incredulous, just savoring the moment. I had never seen anything like this before. I have no scientific explanation for this and I thought about it a lot over the years.

(Okay. So, here's a story from myown recent experience:

I am late for a gig and loaded to the gills with equipment, heading north on the 148, just before that last approach on McDowell. Traffic is heavy, which only keeps reminding me that I am running late.
The high-pitched rev of his engine makes me turn my head.
I hear him before I see him coming from behind on the lane to my right. I continue slowly on, keeping pace with the steady but cautious jingle jangle of cars in front of me. Another rev and he goes by me on the right and suddenly the car in front of him brakes, but he's already accelerated and has no way of avoiding just touching the car in front of him with his front tire, which send him and the bike's rear end to raise up and come tumbling forward. I am watching this all in what seems like slow motion. Surprisingly, I hear myself actually saying, quite audibly, "Oh God! Please, no!"
To no avail, though.
A lunge forward, half a spin and he lands on the asphalt, face down on his upper torso, the bike following close behind and landing on him and continuing forward on as he rolls more to the right, away from me. I follow his movement for about two seconds and have to close my eyes as he proceeds to roll right under the rear wheels of a big-ass eighteen-wheeler.
Goodnight sweet prince.
If I believe that God intervened on behalf of Durston's prayer, just to keep a bull from going forth and multiplying and maybe causing some structural damage to a pen, then I have to ask myself why it didn't intervene on behalf of my profoundly heartfelt paroxysm, for something a little less trivial than a randy bull. Otherwise, he's asking me to believe in talismanic utterances as divine religious devices. That's not theology, that's "magic", as if the words held some intrinsic power of their own


But all that aside, just because Durston has no scientific explanation for this "miracle" doesn't mean there isn't one. Archimedes said, "Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the Earth." It seems pretty obvious to me that, while the rope was "burning through [his] hands" as he desperately tried to hold on to it, the metal or wood loop that the rope had been attached to and served as a fulcrum could withstand a lot more friction and tension than his hands and eventually the friction exerted on the rope and the metal managed to "lock" and finally with sufficient drag to counteract the slow moving large mass. Of course, I wasn't there and we'll never know for sure, I guess, but that's what I would have told him when he claimed a miracle saved the cows from a good schtupping.

I've seen truly amazing physical feats too, downright wondrous things—the most amazing of which was probably a superconductor demonstration right before my eyes. A little cube made of just the right beryllium alloy was suspended in mid air without the aid of magnets or forces.
It was sublime, surreal, surmagical.

A miracle, though?)
The next example of a miracle he offers makes me a little uneasy, not because I find it compelling, but because I think that someone is lying (albeit by omission :) somewhere along the line.

He claims that his two little nieces had a pair or rabbits who died, (I don't think he says how). Dead to the point of rigor mortis, in fact, he says. The little girls prayed over these dead rabbits and they were placed back in their cage in their dead state. After which, the family went somewhere else and when they returned, Lo and behold! the two rabbits were alive and kicking, thanks to the little girls' prayers.

Something about the way he says how they put the rabbits back in their cage and left the room for awhile (to give God some "privacy") gets my spidey sense to ring-a-tingling. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I smell human intervention here.

Here's what I think:
Some well-meaning relative (some cousin or uncle or sister) cleverly and clandestinely snuck in and replaced the dead rabbits with the new live ones. I don't wish to imply that his or her intention was to mislead, but perhaps only a kind attempt to soothe the sorrow of a pair of cute little girls whose bunny rabbits had just died. No one apparently has owned up to doing theswitcheroo and he/she, figuring that there's no harm in everyone believing it was a miracle, has kept it a secret. A cool bit of family folklore.

Now . . . No matter what you may think of my proposed solution to this mystery (Quick, Watson!! . . . The syringe!!— laughs).
It is far more plausible than the possibility that the tears of two little girls actually persuaded the creator of everything that ever was/will-be to take the time to re-animate two Pet Smart friggin' rabbits. (!)


(I'm sÓ serious, dude.)

Okay, now that I've got that off my chest I can listen to the rest of this debate and see how Shallit responds to this stuff.

12 February 2008

Souled Out . . .

Posted by at 8:20 PM
In keeping with the religion and politics theme . . . .

Earlier today on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR:
Award-winning journalist E.J. Dionne (Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, Washington Post columnist, and author of "Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right" and of "Stand Up Fight Back") explains why he believes the era of dominance by the Religious Right in American politics is coming to an end. He also forecasts the role of faith in politics after George W. Bush leaves the White House.

Listen here (in RealAudio)



secrecy in a contemporaneous tradition ...

Posted by at 8:48 AM

In a post below, I hinted at how secret and mysterious the Mormon church seems to most Americans, who know very little about it beyond this "weird" (for lack of a better term) and secret aspect.

A kind of parallel comes to mind when I think of the Lucumí and Carabalí and Dahomey religious traditions (and the rest of the West-African Diaspora derivates).

For some time, particularly after the successful rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti and the audacious but short-lived Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, slaves were not permitted, under pains of unimaginable violence on their persons, to practice any of their traditional liturgical rites or to display the old symbols, so nervous and afraid of solidarity among slaves did the revolts make the white folks.

Now, as will happen when you suppress such things, the slave community came up with a surrogate system of worship, one that co-opted the existing Catholic symbols and used them to represent the same deities (Orishas) as before only now it "looked" just like acceptable Catholicism to the naked eye. To the slaveowner who happened to drop in at the slave quarters and notice a statue of Saint Barbara as the centerpiece of some makeshift altar, it looked like devotion to a Catholic saint—harmless enough. Little did he know that that same statue was being used as a synchretic representation of Shangó (the "warrior" in the Orisha pantheon). Secrecy was solemnly guarded by initiates, and with good reason.

Time passed and eventually slavery was abolished and any stigma that the liturgical tradition might have once held was removed and the secrecy was no longer necessary. But old habits die hard, and the careful defensive posturing which eschews inquiry into the tradition from the outside world remains as a reminder of its "subversive" origin.

This reminds me of the Mormon timidity I pointed to in the earlier post and I thought I would add this afterthought.
This is the kind of thing I see happening there: that is, a religious group is persecuted and retreats into a defensive posture and retains this posture after (and despite) the removal of the persecution it once endured.

It's fascinating.



09 February 2008

a doozy of an equivocation ...

Posted by at 3:51 PM

The Romney camp, now that he has thrown in the towel (until 2012 anyway—look out), is crying foul. An article entitled, "Tabernacle on Trial: Mormons Dismayed by Harsh Spotlight" highlights some recent poll results which indicate that over half of the country simply would not feel comfortable with a Mormon in the White House.
"I don't think that any of us had any idea how much anti-Mormon stuff was out there," said Armand Mauss, a Mormon sociologist who has written extensively about church culture, in an interview last week. "The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there."

I find this quote disturbing because it equates the persecution of the Jews to the "hardships" endured by the modern Mormon people. This is a terrible analogy.

A Mormon apologetics site defines "anti-Mormonism" as follows:
The term anti-Mormon is used to describe a person or group actively opposing Mormonism. It does not refer to groups of people who don’t understand the Church, or disagree with or criticize it. An anti-Mormon represents a more extreme category. For anti-Mormons, the existence of the Mormon Church is something that cannot be tolerated, whether for religious reasons, or political and social ones. And ever since the Mormon Church was established in 1830, there have been anti-Mormons. It is more than disagreement, misunderstanding or criticism. Anti-Mormons generally feel that the existence of the Mormon Church is detrimental to themselves or others based on religious, political, or social reasons. Since the establishment of the Mormon Church, there have always been anti-Mormon sentiments and even groups.

Whereas I am aware that the early history of the Mormon church is filled with violence and persecution, and that it was perhaps once justified in holding to such insular and defensive community values, these are not the United States of the mid-nineteenth century, and I fear that though the active persecution that was once perpetuated on them has gone the way of horse carriages and rebel yells and frozen Charlottes, the "feeling" of being persecuted somehow remained part of their enculturation process like a latent afterimage in their collective subconscious. If you ask me, some people might be suffering from a communal martyr-complex here.
But has there really been any significant recurring, systematic persecution of the Mormon people after those initial birth pangs? Am I missing something I'm not seeing?

Now, to go into the long history of anti-Semitism is beyond the scope of this blog post (for a thorough well-written review of this history, I recommend James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword") but a brief list of pogroms should suffice to illustrate the scope and breadth of Jewish persecution:
  • The German Crusade of 1096
  • Expulsion from England in 1290
  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • Expulsion from Spain in 1492
  • Expulsion from Portugal in 1497
  • Der Crystalnacht
  • The Holocaust
As I already mentioned, the only period of the Mormon church that can arguably be compared to a pogrom is the beginning stage, the Nauvoo years and briefly after.

As illustrated by the above list of atrocities, the Jewish people have been continually dehumanized, stripped of life and property, accused of all manner of ritualistic cannibalism and infanticide and even vampirism. They were seen as a people bent on taking over Europe and the world. Sub-human, they were reviled outcasts. Some said they even hid horns under their hats.
Throughout the history of western civilization, they have been systematically rounded up and murdered or expatriated by the thousands—by the millions!.

By contrast, Mormons typically are stereotyped as a kind of whacky but disciplined bunch with good ethical standards and a conservative bent. I mean . . . Yeah, people make fun of their underwear, but does that compare with the real persecution experienced by the Jewish people over the centuries? To equate "anti-Mormonism" with anti-Semitism is such a ludicrous thing that it makes my head spin in disbelief. Granted, there is a kind of distrust of the Mormon church by the American populace. But it is merely a distrust, not a demonization by any stretch of the imagination.

Now, I would consider myself one of those people who would feel very uncomfortable with Mitt Romney as a potential president for many reasons. Here are just three:
  1. Because he favors an open-ended continuation of the Iraq War.
  2. Because this republic is NOT a business venture.
    and . . .
  3. Yes, because he is a self-described pious Mormon.
But I must insist that this third reason is not based on bigotry.

In much the same way that I would never trust my vote to someone who does not "believe" (as if belief had anything to do with it) in evolution despite the mountains of data supporting it as an observable natural phenomenon, neither could I trust it to someone who believes that early in the nineteenth century Joseph Smith had a paranormal or supernatural encounter with one of "God's angels" who revealed to him some gold-plated scribblings in some imagined "reformed Egyptian" language, a language which required the aid of a hat and a "seer stone" for it to be translated into what we now know as the "Book of Mormon: A New Testament of Jesus Christ" the sacred text of a "new and improved" religion. Neither could I vote for someone who believes that the indigenous native North/Meso-American people were literally the descendants of an ancient Hebraic tribe. The genetic and socio-anthropological data is in, and such a claim is not supported by it. To keep upholding such a thing doctrinally is a strange kind of denial. It's very fascinating to me, this kind of compartmentalization that the religious mindset is capable of.

Am I anti-Mormon?
No. I simply don't believe that the things Joseph Smith said happened to him in Palmyra are true. I don't think he's a devil—just a curious charismatic charlatan. Does expressing my honest disbelief make me "anti-Mormon"?
Does the existence of the church bother me, though, or make me want to eradicate it?
No. I just think it is a delusion based on the ravings of a mountebank. That's all. It is innocuous enough in and of itself. But then I wouldn't vote for a Raelian either, or for a Heaven's Gater (if there were any to vote for, that is), not because they are a threat to me theologically or otherwise—they're just kinda kooky. Am I an anti-Raelian?

Still I wonder: Why are Mormons so reticent to talk about their faith outside of their own communities? Why so prone to secrecy and persecution-complexes?

Here I wish to point to a doctrinal issue which I think is significant and informs why I could not trust my vote to an avowed Mormon. Because most Americans are so ill-informed about the LDS church, it is a little known fact that part of their Endowement ceremony includes a vow in which congregants pledge that any "blessings and gains" acquired in this life are to be dedicated to the "service of God and the Church." This goes above and beyond mere monetary gains—those are taken care of explicitly in their concept of tithing— it refers to and includes any acquired positions of authority and power, anything that we may have some influence over in this life. Knowing this about their theological practice, Romney's candidacy worried me a little, and I must confess that it has perplexed me much that absolutely no one has bothered to ask him about this particular vow. My guess is that people (even journalists) just don't know what Mormons think and do and believe. Either that or they might see such religious questions too direct, too frank, and therefore taboo—off limits. But it's one thing to make fun of "magic underwear" though and quite another to address such problematic doctrines openly and honestly.

I suggest that these people who are crying "bigotry" over all of this ponder the possibility that mere bigotry does not explain this relatively high level of distrust for Mormons by the general American populace. He did, after all, win a caucus or two and placed high second in some crucial races.

A recent ABC News article :
"The problem for Mitt Romney is there is a surprising -- and dangerous -- amount of ignorance about his faith among voters generally," ABC News political analyst Mark Halperin said. "He has avoided trying to educate the public to reduce the suspicion that exists [...] unfortunately for him"
It's true; even when his political survival depended on it and he decided to address the issue of his religious inclinations in a nationally broadcast speech, it seemed to me that he avoided addressing his faith directly and instead spoke in veiled generalities about how one's religious affiliation should not matter. In the end, most Americans continue to see Mormonism as a secretive organization because he failed to inform them. It seems only natural that people would tend to have a distrust of conspiratorial (real or imagined) secrecy, of claims to esoteric "gnosis."

It's a very interesting dilemma, actually: Until the Mormon church lets down its veil of secrecy, they won't be trusted by the populace, yet, if the veil was ever lowered, the doctrines revealed within would probably shock many of those who had no idea it was so weird . . .



p.s. - If any Mormon brethen finds that I am bearing false witness regarding their liturgical practices in this post, I will be glad to be corrected in detail.

05 February 2008

goodnight to a lovely dreamer . . .

Posted by at 6:53 PM

"Don't fight darkness - bring the light, and darkness will disappear." - Maharishi Mahesh Yogi


04 February 2008

were the authors real "Jews"?

Posted by at 11:55 PM
On a recent post, I questioned the tenability of an apocalyptic historical Jesus. In the subsequent discussion, some topics were brought up that inspire a post of its own.

Stating the problem:
What was it about Jesus that caused these Jews (the first Christians) to wrap their sacred history around him? (Moses, Elijah, Passover, Yom Kippur, etc.)
Stated thusly, it seems a fair enough question to ask. After all, devoted Jews just don't go around claiming that someone is greater than Moses everyday. (Have you ever read Hebrews?)

But what if the question is assuming that which it has yet to demonstrate? How do we know they were fully "Jewish"?

Most folks seems content to assume, because the authors appear to be familiar with some of the liturgical symbolism of the Temple cult and with the scriptures in general, that they must have been "Jews."
But if you recall, it wasn't the "Jews" who were the rallying masses behind this new messianic movement, but the gentile converts, with whom it resonated strongest (by all accounts). And by the time most books in the New Testament were being composed, the schism was already complete.

In my reading of the material, I see it spreading like wildfire in this its hellenic variation, but, in its original Jewish setting, the community consisted of an insular group of semi-ascetic Law-observing Jews who, though they tolerated Greek god-fearers-cum-"christians" being around, did not hold to the missionary standard that these hellenists held to and probably wished (a hunch) the hellenists would stop messing with their traditions. The initial Jerusalem Nazarenes, headed by Jacob, were in fact indistinguishable from their Jewish neighbors because they WERE fellow Jews for all intents and purposes. Being Jews, they weren't prone to proselytize and therefore did not "spread like wildfire" like the gentile school, but rather stayed in Jerusalem and simply continued to be Jews who upheld the memory and teachings of their "guru", Jesus, and were allowed to, just as those who kept the memory of Rabbi Hillel or of Rabbi Gamaliel or of Rabbi Akiba were allowed to commemorate their respective teachings and legacies. But these sages were never elevated to the point of surpassing even Moses in importance, even to the point of deification like Jesus eventually was.

The book we know as the Gospel of Matthew's obvious lifting of the Mosaic parallels and pentaform structure is fascinating in light of this.

Still the above question looms.

What could have made Jews proclaim Jesus exalted above all names, even that of Moses?

I find it hard to believe that an "orthodox" Jew would make that leap. Ask yourself what it would take for a Muslim to elevate some newcomer to a position higher than that occupied by Mohammed in that worldview? What would it take for a Christian to supplant Jesus with some modern supposed Second Coming (though, notably, over the centuries, there has been no lack of contenders for that particular title, I know—e.g. Montanus, Haile Selassie, Hong Xiuquan, Charles Manson - jk :P )?

But . . . . if you'll allow me an anachronism here . . . .
A Jew-for-Jesus could have easily made such a theological blunder.

That's what all of this has me thinking of.
Follow me here . . .
It seems plausible to me that it (GMatt et. al.) could have been written by a community of hellenist initiates into the Pauline mysteries who were resentful of having been kicked out of the Temple for their irreconcilable (downright heretical from a Jewish perspective) views (the dating of this severance - that is, of the expulsion from fellowship of those who held to these mysteries - Jamnia, circa 83–90 C.E., sounds just about right when Mathew came to into being (by current consensus, it is right in the strike zone).

I bring up the contemporary Jews-for-Jesus movement here because they serve as a good modern example of a devotional community that has co-opted the traditions (though only superficially) of another pre-existing group to the extent that they view THEMSELVES as the true advocates of the tradition.

We admit that there's something very "non-Jewish" about proclaiming Jesus as the Übermoses. A Pharisee would have been really annoyed by this teaching.

Of course, one could just accept that miracles did happen and that they vouchsafe the messianic claims. But, instead of thinking of the early kerygma's allure as simply resulting from reports of miracles and apocalyptic preaching (history must prefer confessions of ignorance to invocations of the supernatural, or necessarily fall outside of the scientific paradigm—and besides, miracle workers were a dime a dozen in those days) it seems more plausible (at least probable) to me that it might perhaps not "sound" Jewish simply because it ISN'T Jewish.

Yes, there is some genuine knowledge of Judaic forms and symbols reflected in Matthew. These, however could have been simply a result of the close contact these proselytes had had for half a century with the Jewish host tradition. These symbols were co-opted by these outcasts who then proclaimed themselves to be the true, newly-fulfilled Judaism (having bought into the Pauline mysteries necessitated borrowing Abram's Bossom for it to work, after all), yet very quickly (amazingly quick in fact) these symbols were grossly misinterpreted by subsequent initiates. I have had several discourses with Jew-for-Jesus missionaries in which I noticed that the symbolism is not only co-opted, it is sometimes misrepresented.

I have been thinking it out for some time and this might explain why the texts utilize elements of Jewish symbolism and metaphor and borrowed forms while at the same time audaciously ascribing divinity to a mortal man. It is no wonder to me that these people got kicked out of the synagogues for their views.

Thanks to the theological ruminations and innovations of Paul and those who influenced him (wouldn't it be so lovely to have something from Apollos or from Barnabas or from Thecla?), this salvation was now not only available to all, but its implications essentially rendered the Judaism which inspired it more or less obsolete.

To those who would insist on the genuine Jewishness of the authors, just one question for now:
Why would the early church not latch on to the initial reference to the scapegoat motif of Yom Kippur and instead choose a literal interpretation of the Barrabas episode? How Jewish were these people, that they so quickly and completely forgot their inherited iconography?

Still, the textual evidence that the authors had deep knowledge of Judasim seems to testifiy to their "Jewishness". No?
Well, not necessarily.

Take my next example (just so Jew-for-Jesus won't be the only folks offended by this humble post . . . :)

The Mormons, in their sacred writings, display a profound understanding of Christianity. No? They freely borrowed the phrasing and symbolism of that religion which they claim to be a splinter of. Indeed, they felt entitled to do this as the true inheritors (by their own self-definition) of the gospel.

Can one deny that a deep familiarity and even understanding of Christianity is evident in their texts?
Oh, yeah . . . except for that bit about Jesus appearing in North America during his three days missing from Jerusalem after his crucifixion, while he was dead (the orthodox church line says he went to hell - the Mormons must think that North America must be hell, then, by logical reasoning . . . o_Ó . . .). Oh . . . and that little bit about how he was actually a brother of Lucifer . . . . Oh . . . and that little thing about men earning their godhood (and a planet of their own to boot) through piety and righteousness in this life. These digressions are blasphemous to most orthodox Christian traditions.

Are Mormons Christian? Well . . . their texts reflect a deep understanding and dependence on the New Testament, so . . . surely . . . . they MUST be Christians. No?

But I'm not gonna argue whether I think Mormons are Chritians (I think they're not— in the same way that Christians are not Jews—which is not to say I object to their existence—I wanna be careful to not be painted into an anti-Mormon corner) . . . Regardless, they co-opted the sacred texts of the religion which they splintered from and added their own teaching which misinterpreted those texts they co-opted. This paralells the early Christian situation (to my eyes) and I think this might be the kind of thing that happened when hellenist converts persuaded themselves that they were the "New Jerusalem".

As you can tell . . . I see a problem with taking for granted the Jewishness of the New Testament authors just because they utilize Jewish themes and symbols despite their idolatrous (from a Jewish perspective) exultation of Jesus.

To hold that those bits that are un-Jewish were adopted because the orthodox community was convinced that God had stepped into history to raise Jesus . . . requires an enormous leap. It needs a supernatural intervention for it to work. My model at least attempts to explain the un-Jewishness of the texts in a way that leaves the supernatural out of it (Yes, I am an unashamed naturalist).

The greek precursor of the concept we now call Ockam's razor was the "think horses" axion. In ancient greece, medical students were exhorted to think horses - not zebras - when they heard the sound of hoofbeats coming (my point here being that invoking the supernatural is like thinking zebras).

Again I must insist that most Jews rejected the claim of his followers that he was the Messiah, and, except for the small group led by Jacob in Jerusalem, who were pretty much left alone (and even respected). To keep insisting that the early spreading Christianity was comprised of mostly genuine Jews who only blasphemed against their god because miracles compelled them to is to beg a lot of questions, in my opinion.

Anyway . . . I'm gonna chew on this for a while.

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