Friday, April 29, 2011

We Don't Need Religious Doctrine to Behave Morally

The true god is white, radiates purity, and uses cave salt to condition his hair. You can still gain entrance to heaven if you don't believe the last part with perfect faith.
Does anyone really buy the eternal life bit anymore?

I don't have statistics, but certainly I must comment more on Christianity than on Judaism. Partly this is because Christian themes are more prevalent in the blogs I read. Christianity is also easier to deal with, as, alas, blogs on Jewish subjects can be so esoteric and irrelevant.

So, I came across a Christian blog that asks "Are Mormons 'Christian'?" With admirable charity, the blogger concludes "sure they are." I am most interested, however, in one paragraph:
I mentioned a while back that I have quite liberal standards as to who I would fellowship with and who I would consider to be “Christian”. Personally, I don’t cast people “outside the camp” who reject the Trinity, the virgin birth, or any number of other doctrinal issues. It has been said that you can not be saved by a false God. That is all good and true but I think it is also correct to say that the true God can save whoever he wants to, and I just don’t see where Jesus taught about orthodoxy being the key to inheriting eternal life.
Now, I am no Christian. I have no dog in the fight over whether Mormons are or are not Christians. But this question over who is a true whatever captures for me the whole problem of religion. That problem is the tension between adherence to doctrine and performance of moral behavior.

The writer of the post can afford to be magnanimous toward Mormons only by de-coupling doctrine and morality. One can hold orthodox beliefs and behave in ways that are or are not socially acceptable. One can reject some or all orthodox beliefs and also behave in ways that are or are not socially acceptable. One can behave like a good or a bad person, regardless of the doctrines one professes.

Once we accept that real actions towards others are more important than sectarian beliefs, it's a small logical step to realizing that moral behavior should be valued over any held religious belief. From there, we can ask the real question: what do we need these doctrines and dogmas for, anyway? Can't we just let them go and focus instead on how people act, especially toward others?

In the end, quite literally, the writer is left to weakly offer the carrot of "eternal life." Does anyone really buy the eternal life bit anymore? Really? Hasn't the term "eternal life" lost all sense of force? Does anyone need to be coerced by eternal life into behaving properly?

We need to grow up as a species.

A Message to the Birthers and Their GOP Enablers

All you birther bitches better pony up your birth certificates now, too.

I can't remember any political candidate having his citizenship and his "American-ness" questioned as has been the case with President Obama.

I know the the so-called "birthers" won't let the issue go, so I wish to offer them my thoughts on the matter:
Fuck off, you fearful, elitist, anti-justice, racist pricks.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

We Can Explain Ancient Miracles

If only you believe like I believe, baby, we’d get by.
If only you believe in miracles, baby, so would I.

If you actually believe in miracles, as opposed to nominally believing in them, then you don't really believe in reality.

I hear this awful claim often enough to be annoyed by it:
Scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries spent much time rationalizing and attempting to explain the miracles of Jesus. These miracles cannot be removed or explained away. They are fundamental to the message as perceived by the audience of Jesus. As people of the 21st century believe in science, people then believed in magic. Although contemporary people may not accept that such miracles occurred, the age in which Jesus lived believed in miracles. The miracles have a progressive character, from curing Peter's mother-in-law of a fever to bringing a girl back from the dead. The miracles prompted people to deal with the question of God and he was speaking through this prophet or whether Jesus was a false prophet. In the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, these miracles are essential to authenticating the message of Jesus. [emphasis added]
A fair parsing of the above is to understand it not as a defense of miracles per se or as an affirmation of Jesus as god or demigod, but rather as an assertion that miracles are constitutive content of Jesus message. A real Jesus who didn't perform miracles was not Jesus, in other words. 

However, I want to focus on a different but also fair reading, the annoying reading. This is the one that blithely accepts miracles in the case of Jesus (though never, to my knowledge, in non-Christian contexts) and devotedly affirms Jesus as a singularly special personage. It is true, as the claim above suggests, that even today some modern scholars try to rationalize and explain the miracles of Jesus.

My point is that the explanations fall flat not because miracles are beyond explanation but rather because the most likely explanation is rarely considered, that the miracles are invented. The miracles are embellished. They are fabricated.

And the invention is indeed fundamental to the larger message. Jesus's miracles authenticate the divine claims about him. Similarly, the miracles of Sinai, manna, plagues, the parting of the waters--all these validate and justify the claims people make about the Torah and the Judaism they say is based on Torah. They are not lies but fantasies of the truth.

Nevertheless, although we today try to be careful in defining truth and fantasy, we can always find claims presented as fact that are badly, baldly incorrect. For example, our quote above states incorrectly that "As people of the 21st century believe in science, people then [in the time of Jesus] believed in magic." We people today do not believe in science. We do not claim that people with scientific powers can violate laws of nature, wipe out nations in response to our supplication, or save us the final fate of all organisms. We do not believe that science belongs exclusively to a hereditary cabal of social elites. We do not believe that people can walk into the wilderness and acquire full-blown scientific powers, as from a burning bush, that decipher the invisible yet perceptible patterns of a universe in motion. We cannot, therefore, allow a facile equation between the mindsets of people in the first and twenty-first centuries. 

Neither can we presumptively grant special status to the miracles of Jesus or the Torah because miracles abound in the religions of the world:
  • Muslims consider the Koran itself to be a miracle.
  • Muslims also point to the miracles of Mohamed's splitting of the moon, his journey to Jerusalem, and his ascension to heaven.
  • The Buddha is reported to have created a golden bridge in the air, using only his mind. He walked up and down the bridge for a week.
  • The Buddha also is said to have produced flames from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the lower part of his body, alternating this, and doing similarly between the left and right sides of his body. This is the "twin miracle."
  • In Hinduism, Sathya Sai Baba produces ash for skeptical onlookers as a symbol of his divinity. Sri Ramakrishna proved his divinity to Swami Vivekananda by touching him on the chest, thereby revealing the true nature of the universe to him
  • Also in Hinduism are the miracles of Sri Krishna, ranging from instances in his childhood in which his mother, Yashoda, saw the whole of creation in his mouth, to the revealing of his true nature to Arjuna during the Mahabharata.
To accept the existence of bona-fide miracles is to require a level of credence to all miracle claims. You cannot blithely state that the miracles of Exodus are true but not the miracles of Jesus. You cannot argue that the miracles of Jesus are true but not the miracles of Mohamed. You cannot say that the miracles of Exodus and Jesus are true but not those of the Buddha. And so on....

Thus: if you believe, really believe, in miracles, then you disbelieve in reality. To believe in miracles is to hypothesize that normal reality can at any time be fundamentally altered: the sun can stop, the dead can become alive again, the world can be made to act like a single living thing, and so on.

In this light, perhaps it should be unsurprising that people declare with puffed-out chests that the miracles of [insert religious figure here] cannot be explained through reason or science or common sense or whatever. People don't like the boredom and lack of drama that is most of reality most of the time. Miracles are sexier, more dramatic, more conducive to our natural solipsism.

Writer William Saroyan famously said, "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." The miracle apologists suffer from adopting this line of thinking seriously. They live and move in reality throughout their days and yet steadfastly believe that reality can be excepted in the case of how they wish it would be.

William Carlos Williams Reads and Speaks

How can I allow National Poetry Month go by without offering a poem? Here is a wonderful reading and commentary by one of my favorites, William Carlos Williams.

The first poem WCW reads is "Spring and All":
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken
When I was a college lad, I tried my hand at writing a poem in the style of Williams. Red-faced and eyes lowered, I offer it here:
sorry i
bit your
it felt just

like a marshmallow
and saturated
and truly i
so hungry
My perverse streak comes out in this poem about a romantic moment gone wrong. Sonically it's a bit jumbled, but the reasoning of the speaker--that hunger--is disturbingly open.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We Found Our Own

Time again to read good, old Walt Whitman. We are now on Page 31 from Walt Whitman's 1855 edition--the first--of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman sings life and energy:
[Page 30] Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.
[Page 31] We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own my soul in the calm and cool of the daybreak.
Whitman's poet must absorb the sun's energy, it's information, and radiate it back into the world as poetry. The poet must do this. It's is a prerequisite of life and utterly necessary.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision . . . . it is unequal to measure itself.

It provokes me forever,
It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough . . . . why don't you let it out then?
The "It" here seems to be speech, the figure of song and poetry. It seems to be voice, emblem of the individual. And the individual is both unique and part of the larger fabric of the world. Yet speech and voice are somehow different from the individual. They converse with the individual, provoking him or her to make more speech and to articulate more. Whitman's poet then makes an abrupt turn and praises silence before the world.
Come now I will not be tantalized . . . . you conceive too much of articulation.

Do you not know how the buds beneath are folded?
Waiting in gloom protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts . . . . it keeping tally with the meaning of things,
Happiness . . . . which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.

My final merit I refuse you . . . . I refuse putting from me the best I am.

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.
Whitman's poet here admonishes speech and voice. Can you imagine? A poet denying his essential vehicle! For the poet, it is best not to invest too much or all the time in articulation. It can be better simply to be and to listen.
I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself . . . . and let sounds contribute toward me.

I hear the bravuras of birds . . . . the bustle of growing wheat . . . . gossip of flames . . . . clack of sticks cooking my meals.

I hear the sound of the human voice . . . . a sound I love,
I hear all sounds as they are tuned to their uses . . . . sounds of the city and sounds out of the city . . . . sounds of the day and night;
Talkative young ones to those that like them . . . . the recitative of fish-pedlars and fruit-pedlars . . . . the loud laugh of workpeople at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship . . . . the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his shaky lips pronouncing a death-sentence,
The heave'e'yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves . . . . the refrain of the anchor-lifters;
The poet hears a mosaic of sounds. We began this page with the poet's need to articulate. The poet, both person and soul, ascends like the sun. "We found our own," we join with the world and make our own world. We absorb and we radiate.

Wednesday Comedy: Gilbert Gottfried

When a joke bombs, it bombs.

How is it that I have not yet payed homage to the great Gottfried? He's at his best when he's telling familiar (and dirty) jokes, as we can see in the clip below.

What he shows is how delivery really makes a joke funny. Gilbert telling a joke is not the same as my brother telling the same one.

Yes, I know that he apparently made some poorly timed jokes about the recent Japan disaster. Stupid on his part, perhaps, but every working comedian is always one joke away from being fired.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Medieval Castle of Intelligent Design

Château d’Angers

Lawyer and ID proponent Barry Arrington has recently taken to defending the ID fort with the standby accusation that opponents of ID fail to understand the theory properly.

What, then, is the proper understanding of ID? Arrington lays out the case:
ID is not, as its opponents suggest, a purely negative argument that material forces are insufficient to account for IC and FSCI. At its root ID is an abductive conclusion (i.e., inference to best explanation) concerning the data. This conclusion may be stated in summary as follows:

1. Living things display IC [irreducible complexity] and FSCI [functional specified complex information].

2. Material forces have never been shown to produce IC and FSCI.

3. Intelligent agents routinely produce IC and FSCI.

4. Therefore, based on the evidence that we have in front of us, the best explanation for the presence of IC and FSCI in living things is that they are the result of acts of an intelligent agent.
Sigh. Not very good reasoning, I'm afraid. It may look like a decent argument at first blush, but then look at each premise on its own.

Item #1 cannot be granted at all. IC is a highly dubious concept, as Kenneth Miller and many others have demonstrated amply. FSCI has not been defined in a mathematically rigorous way, either. So, we have no clear, testable understanding of IC and FSCI. Much less do we have clarity on how living things "display" them. Finally, it remains unclear whether living things necessarily display both or one or the other.

Item #2 just seems wrong factually. Were we to grant that all living things exhibit IC and FSCI, then surely some living things would reproduce and thereby generate offspring that also exhibit IC and FSCI. Reproduction is a material force, is it not?

Item #3 is irrelevant. We are not talking in #1 and #2 about artificial productions of IC and FSCI, whatever they are. We're talking about organic production, about producing IC and FSCI in living things. The term "produce" is left unexplained, so it's hard to get a good reading of the point here.

Item #4 flies in the face of careful reading, as item #2 (properly adjusted to match reality) actually gives the most cogent explanation. Material forces so far seem to be the only thing that produces IC and FSCI. But definition is all, and the language of the four items stinks, if we are being honest.

Beyond a very bad argument, what do we have here? I think Arrington's reasoning is best explained as a protective construct. It's a medieval castle. It's a Hummer H3. It defends against attack and asserts the self. It's a declaration that "I believe that God/Jesus is God and none o' you jackwagons is going to change my mind!"

I think that's it, actually. Folks like Arrington prefer their belief. In contemporary science and in the growing popular acceptance of New Atheism, they see an "intellectual elite" that has come to supplant the comfortable Cold War mentality that gave shape to their world. Arrington and company make, in other words, a political stand from a position that seems to lose ever more standing as the years go by.

If I am an ID opponent, then what I oppose is an incoherent argument. In principle, I have no objection to the idea of "design" for living things or for elements which constitute living things. But I don't like seeing a bad case made--such as what Arrington offers in his summary--for another view (i.e., natural evolution) having a bad case.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday, Depending on Perspective

The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) in Vienna was the heart of the Jewish ghetto from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
While I wish to take nothing away from Christian observance of a central holiday, I also hope to remember how a dubious story has been used to sanction very real bloodshed. The lesson here is not about the blood. Neither is it about the sins of the past. Rather, the lesson is about dangerous credulity and literalness. It's about adulation of the absent. It's about the desperate wish to make nature hear, if not obey, our cries. Perhaps we today are relatively safe from religious warriors. Perhaps not.

Today is called "Good Friday" by some. The story goes that a controversial, itinerant Jewish preacher was tortured and executed by the Roman authorities. What's more, this was no mere man but the Jewish god incarnate, born to sacrifice himself for the sins of a humanity he had created long before. Some traditions maintain that through this sacrifice, the god-incarnate-as-man thereafter allowed those who believed in him to gain entry into an eternal afterlife of happiness--provided those people also performed the proper sacraments.

I cannot hide my skepticism toward the story. I have no reason to doubt that anyone was murdered, but I'll need more solid evidence on the man-is-god, died-for-sins, and eternal afterlife parts. Nevertheless, I am not alone in questioning the story's veracity. Plenty of others have found ample reason to think the written accounts and subsequent traditions were somehow different from what might have actually happened. To illustrate, I want to quote two paragraphs from Colin J. Humphreys, a physicist at the University of Cambridge:
Bible scholars have puzzled for centuries over apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus, and this often leads people to question the Bible’s veracity entirely. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all state the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John, by contrast, says that it took place before the Passover began. Whatever you think about the Bible, the fact is that Jewish people would never mistake the Passover meal for another meal, so for the Gospels to contradict themselves about this is really hard to understand. The eminent biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, once described this problem as “the thorniest problem in the New Testament.”

The Gospels also do not seem to allow enough time for all the events they record between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, whilst indicating that Wednesday was a “missing day” on which Jesus did nothing. Scholars have literally rushed around Jerusalem with a stop-watch to see how the large number of events recorded in the Gospels could have occurred between the Last Supper on Thursday night and the Crucifixion on Friday morning. Most conclude that it is impossible. In addition, the Mishnah (a compendium of regulations attributed to about 150 rabbis who lived from about 50 BC to about AD 200) states that the Jewish Court called the Sanhedrin, which tried Jesus, must not meet at night, on a feast day or on the eve of a feast day, and in capital cases a verdict of conviction must be reached the day after the main trial. If these rules applied at the time of Jesus then the trials reported in the Gospels blatantly flout Jewish legal proceedings, yet although the gospels claim there were many false witnesses they implicitly accept the legality of the trials. However, it turns out that there is a very simple solution to these problems: if you move the Last Supper to Wednesday, instead of Thursday, the Gospels are actually in remarkable agreement. In addition, the Bible nowhere states that the Last Supper was on the evening before the Crucifixion, contrary to the claims in many biblical commentaries that it does!
Now, Humphreys believes that the inconsistencies in the Gospels are apparent rather than real--which of course puts him in a long, long line of scholars and theologians who have sought to reconcile believers with a collection of narratives that often violate both one another and common sense.

However, while it's fun to argue over the story's historicity, we know that the story has had real consequences in history. Today, the Christian world sees the death of Jesus as something to be commemorated, if not celebrated. But the Jewish world sees the story in the way it often acted in Europe: as a pretext for pogroms against Jewish communities. From the High Middle Ages through the mid-20th century--roughly 900 years--Holy Week could be a dangerous time for European Jews. Here is but one example, from the Austrian city of Vienna:
The Easter 1420 pogrom, during which Jews from throughout Austria were rounded up and imprisoned, was sanctioned by Duke Albrecht V, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty and then-leader of Austria, who was heavily indebted to Jewish money lenders. Many Jews committed suicide while in captivity and their children were forcibly converted to Catholicism. The remainder were burned alongside the river outside Vienna.
Over 200 people were burned at the stake because unfounded rumors circulated that Jews had desecrated Eucharist wafers.

But these incidents--the violence, accusations, and destruction--were not just local in time and space. Jews could not just settle back into "normalcy" and security following a pogrom:
For years after the medieval pogrom, those Jews who managed to escape and resettle in other areas of Central Europe sang a lamentation recounting the obliteration of a once proud Jewish center. This elegy referred to Vienna as the "city of blood." It wasn't until the early 1600s that Jews were allowed to return there in significant numbers, only to face another expulsion in 1669.
Following the 1420 incident, the Jewish synagogue was destroyed in 1421, with its stones used to help build the University of Vienna.

So, while I wish to take nothing away from Christian observance of a central holiday, I also hope to remember how a dubious story has been used to sanction very real bloodshed. The lesson here is not about the blood. Neither is it about the sins of the past. Rather, the lesson is about dangerous credulity and literalness. It's about adulation of the absent. It's about the desperate wish to make nature hear, if not obey, our cries. Perhaps Jewish and other communities today are relatively safe from religious warriors. Perhaps not.

ABD Again!

"ABD again, Just can't wait to be ABD again...."
I am elated to report that I have passed my Ph.D. candidacy exams. I am now, once again, all but dissertation (ABD). In 2000, I took and passed the earlier incarnation of the same exams, but I never completed a dissertation. Now I have the opportunity to make good on all the time and money I had spent so long ago.

I am especially gratified at passing because my work life was so busy that finding time and ways to prepare for the exam was extremely challenging. I broke down my strategy to its core--study only the most important parts of the most important texts. It worked.

However, passing the exam and giving myself pats on the back will be meaningless if I don't finish the dissertation. Fortunately, I have a good topic and the resources to do the job. One reason I was unable to complete the dissertation the first time around was lack of access to the texts I needed.

And so, I'll humbly go where I had once gone before...and then I'll hope to travel beyond.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Beautiful Boy

Darling, darling, darling.

My 3-year-old son is sweet, lovable, and autistic. He can be hard to relate to and difficult to raise--more so for my wife, who is home with him while I'm away at the office--but he is a light in my life. More than anything, I want him to grow up safe and happy. There are moments when I wonder if it will be possible.

Veteran journalist Robert MacNeill delivers a heartbreaking report on his autistic grandson. The piece shows very well that autism affects not only children but entire families. Even in "mild" cases such as my son's, autism can be devastating. And I am only beginning to realize this.

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

Perhaps the most devastating realization of all is that "it will never get easier." My son and our family will always have to cope with and manage his autism.

Ah, but it really is all right. We'll not only deal but flourish. We'll just have to be patient, as Lennon sings.

Yet, I must make one more confession. Much of my son's behavior I see in myself. Perhaps I am only indulging in natural self-centeredness, the kind where we blithely assume that others see and feel things as we do. Yet I have always been a person of routine, sometimes rigid routine. I have never been one for socializing or easy with eye contact. Much of my life is internal--indeed, I blog partly to express this internal life! I am fascinated with transformations and little things much as my son enjoys watching his toy cars roll.

My son is making progress. He goes to a special pre-school and seems to enjoy it. He is surrounded by experts and family who love him. We are all learning to care for him and for ourselves. And we are all hopeful about a future that we know will have many rough patches but also a curious charm and intrigue that we would be hard pressed to trade.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How About We Promote the Good with Discussion Rather than with Pleasant Fictions?

"Pleasant" fictions, from left to right: Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn; the Easter Bunny; iconography of the Jewish messiah.

I have mentioned before how I enjoy reading R. Joseph Hoffmann, although I frequently disagree with him. Hoffmann recently stirred up the Atheist blogosphere by criticizing the New Atheists. Hoffmann, himself an unbeliever, has been taken as accusing the New Atheists of philosophical naivety and ignorance of the history of religions.

New Atheists (or Gnu Atheists) such as Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers lash back at Hoffmann. Rightly so, in my opinion. However, rather than jumping on the anti-Hoffmann bandwagon, I want to observe a few simple points and ask questions about them.

Point #1: Hoffmann, ever eloquent, offers the following philosophical pillar in one of his exasperated mock-manifestos:
We accept religion as a way of valuing and expressing ideals. We look skeptically at its role as a guide for human behavior, and as a system of doctrines that must be believed at the risk of peril to an immortal soul. But we acknowledge that the religions of the world have profoundly affected both the content, formation and direction of ethical discussion.
On the surface, this magnanimous statement seems eminently reasonable. But let's hold the statement for a moment and introduce Point #2, a standard teaching that may be delivered in any Christian pre-school classroom around Easter time:
Basic Truth: Jesus wants to be my friend forever.
Bottom Line: Jesus wants to be my friend forever.
Memory Verse: “I am with you always.” Matthew 28:20, NIV
Since Passover draws nigh, here is Point #3, guidance on communicating the Pesach story to young children:
Wording you may want to use in your classrooms:
“Pharaoh didn’t want any Jewish boy babies … So the Mommy had to come up with a plan … She put the baby in a very soft basket in the water, hidden in the reeds. The big sister was going to watch from the side the whole time.”

After telling some unpleasant part of the story, end the lesson on a happy note, “When Mashiach comes, everything will be good.”
  • When telling the story of Pesach (or any part of Torah), the teacher/ rabbi should read or at least hold a Chumash, so that the children understand that this is from the Torah and not simply a story.
  • Use props such as puppets, costumes and facial expressions when telling the story.
I have no reliable data on what Muslims, Hindus, or other religions teach their children. Nevertheless, without reducing all religion to Christianity and Judaism, let's ask what it means to "accept religion as a way of valuing and expressing ideals," a la Hoffmann. Surely, we acknowledge that people can teach the lessons cited above. We acknowledge the right of believers to teach such lessons to any who freely choose to hear. This right does not seem to me to be the main issue.

Does Hoffmann's "accept" mean we must refrain from comment and criticism? Should we not question the ethics of teaching children that "Jesus" wants to be their friend forever? Let's look at the the "memory verse" in context:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:16-20)
Should we not ask why Jesus makes a point not about friendship but rather about the dissemination of power and authority, that is, about imperialism? Should we not ask whether Jesus' friendship extends only to the disciples, as it seems, or to all? Should we not ask whether Jesus' friendship is free or coerced? Should we not ask what is meant by "end of the age," and why other translations emphasize end-times, as in the KJV's "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"?

Dear Hoffmann, must we "look skeptically" at such lessons in silence or only amongst ourselves? If we disagree that the Jesus of the New Testament wants to be anyone's friend, or if we suggest that Jesus is not the kind of friend that anyone would want, should we simply just let these thoughts sail on by without taking any action on them? If "we acknowledge that the religions of the world have profoundly affected both the content, formation and direction of ethical discussion," does that mean we agree with bald assertion of the Torah as an authority for the truth of the Exodus myth? Does acknowledgment mean that we should not examine and--heaven forfend, criticize--the profound effect of the religions of the world on ethical discussion?

Hoffmann believes we New Atheists need to employ greater nuance in our approach both to religions themselves and to criticism of different religions. We must take pains to show our understanding of how individual religions and sects differ from others. We must stress religion is not a synonym for "bad." Hoffmann thinks the New Atheism is far cruder and un-philosophical than it actually is. We use crudeness and visceral response, but the Gnus can be very sophisticated, and Hoffmann ought to recognize this. Neither is the New Atheism a "my way or the highway" movement. We do not demand that people adopt one "way of valuing and expressing ideals." On the contrary, we value plurality and difference.

But we cannot and should not abide people just making stuff up--even palatable stuff--to coerce behavior. On this point, I like what Sam Harris said at the end of his recent debate with William Lane Craig:
Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality. Whatever is true about our circumstance in moral terms… is discoverable now, and can be talked about in language that is not an outright affront to everything we’ve learned in the last 2,000 years.
In other words, you can't just say Jesus wants to be friends and that everyone should worship him because neither the text nor the religion says he wants to be friends. You can't just say that everything will be hunky-dory when the Moshiach comes--and enforce rigid behaviors around mitzvot--because the whole Jewish concept of the Messiah is highly problematic.

The ideas we want to communicate, the ones we want to pass along to our children and our world, can be conveyed without bunnies, false friends, and warrior kings of the future.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 8): Can You Have Your Bible and Criticize It Too?

Which is the more alien, the Bible's "original meaning" or the interpretations of liberal theologians?
After a brief hiatus because of my intense workload, I want to continue reading through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

We'll look now at a subsection discussing what Kugel calls the liberal approach to Scripture. Unlike the approach taken by Fundamentalist Protestantism, the liberal view has sought to reconcile the Bible and the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship.

Kugel points out the diverse forms that liberal approaches can take, yet he notes that overall these approaches accept the Bible as something less than absolutely true in its historical facts. This Bible, embellished here or taking certain narrative liberties there, has more abstract value in this approach. The Bible is about not history but faith, and theology, and more.

Its truth operating at a more abstract level--some might say a "deeper" level, but this is perhaps a biased view--the Bible cannot be apprehended by only a mere surface understanding of its text. The Bible's liberal champions used such assumptions to distance themselves from biblical details such as Israel's nasty wars against neighbors or God's demands for revenge or so-on-and-on. These scholars focused instead on biblical "themes" and theological "centers."

In short, the liberal approach sought to de-emphasize the plain meaning of at least some biblical passages, placing them in the interpretive background or to render them altogether unimportant. Freeing the Bible from its details also allowed liberal theologians to detach it from potentially troublesome items in modern science, common sense, or our contemporary knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history and civilization. The Bible wasn't really talking about that, that nature, that miracle, that event--so just ignore it and focus on the larger or deeper spiritual "truth." This was the liberal approach.

Kugel notes that liberalism joined with broader scholarly discussion over hermeneutics, "the nature of a text's signification and meaning." Without going into detail on specifics of the discussion, suffice it to say that liberal theologians generally felt justified in developing their own understanding of the Bible as an alternative to the Bible's "original meaning"--insofar as that original meaning could be clarified at all by modern scholarship.

Kugel also highlights the connection between liberal approaches to scripture and gradual movement away from the idea of the Bible's divine inspiration. In fact, liberal theologians developed several understandings of inspiration. Some of them:
  • Limited verbal inspiration
  • Strict verbal insipration
  • Nontextual inspiration
  • Content inspiration
  • Inspired experiences
  • Social inspiration
It should be acknowledged that the liberal stance is not defensive. Its proponents do not consider the approach to be a reaction against modern scientific, philosophical, and historical knowledge. It's not designed to "protect" the Bible for religion. Kugel says that adherents of the liberal approach often see themselves liberating (ahem) the Bible from "the straitjacket of original meaning." The liberal approach, they surmise, reads the Bible as it really is, for what it really means, and is therefore superior to an approach that demands belief in the unbelievable.

Kugel criticizes the liberal view somewhat. He says that the liberal approach doesn't really have a claim to unbiased or artificial interpretation, at least no more a claim than ancient interpreters (we may note that this is a rather postmodern stance from a scholar who seems to disdain "postmodernism."). He also points out the rather thorny problem that the Bible of liberalism is somehow lesser than the Bible of fundamentalism. The liberal Bible is "more of a human document than ever before, which is to say that its power to command and even instruct has been diminished." Liberalism, Kugel suggests, accepts two fundamentally opposed ideas: the Bible is more human and less divine than it has historically been taken to be, yet the Bible can continue to act in society as a spiritual (and, one suspects, a moral) guide containing teachings of relevance in the modern world.

In the end, Kugel is ambivalent toward the liberal stance. It seems not to have reconciled the biblical document and the Good Book, and what's more it seems unable to square that particular circle. Kugel leads us, then, back to the Bible's first readers, back to when the words of the Bible were "all-important." A perceptive reader may detect a hint of sarcasm in my last sentence, as I wonder if Kugel is here lapsing into an idealistic, idyllic picture of a "pre-Fall" Bible, when its words and meanings were united and whole. Now, I am not being altogether fair, as Kugel does not completely make this lapse, yet he certainly seems to approve of the interpretive view that privileges words and meanings. If the liberal view is troubled by the Bible's seeming lack of historical veracity, the ancient interpreters know no such trouble. As Kugel summarizes the ancient view once again: "the events of the past are one thing, but the words of Scripture are quite another, and it is the words that count for us."  

In he next section, Kugel discusses the "change back" from liberalism, a change bypassing fundamentalism too.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Teachers and Inquisitors

Francisco Goya, Inquisition Scene, c. 1816

I'm prepping for the oral defense of the written exams I took last week. Hence, teacher comedy and inquisitor comedy.