Saturday, January 26, 2008

More Motes, more Beams

Some years ago I was riding home on the train back in Devil Bunny City, standing up squashed in among a bunch of other people in the way that can either induce a Whitman-esque enthusiasm for the energy and drive of the denizens of the great metropolis- or claustrophobia. Just to my left a young lady of Middle-Eastern appearance was cheerfully talking to a friend, and she had a little silvery pendant shaped like a dagger on a chain around her neck. It was a kind of misshapen, amateurish-looking dagger, I remember thinking, and then it hit me with a thwack that it was not a dagger at all, but a map of mandatory Palestine, like so:

Now, there was a much less justifiable pre-emptive war fought 161 years ago, rather than 41 years ago, after which the victors embarked on a much more enthusiastic program of settlement building. And they annexed a vastly larger territory. If you wanted to show your support for your ancestral homeland by wearing a pendant showing its historical boundaries, on the same scale you would have to be one of those ganger types given to extravagantly vast medallions, like so:

“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was
consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed
to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the
most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance
of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not
considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
-Ulysses S Grant



“The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the
arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson



“It is a singular fact, that if any one should declare the President sent the
army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submited,
by consent or by force, to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and
that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one
word in all the President has said, which would either admit or deny the
declaration. This strange omission, it does seem to me, could not have occurred
but by design.”
-Abraham Lincoln


The American ‘Apartheid Wall’ in Alta California:



An illegal American settlement on the West Bank of the Colorado:



I wonder if there is any statute of limitations on these things? If it was right for the French to get out of Algeria, and for the Russians to get out of Kazakhstan, it can't be right for the United States to continue to enjoy the fruits of a aggressive 19th century war of conquest.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Spero: Question Eight, Extra Bonus Bit

This is that observation of Mark Twain’s from The Innocents Abroad which I was going to get on to:


I state as my simple deduction from the things I have seen and the things I have
heard, that the Holy Personages rank thus in Rome:
First- “The Mother of God” – otherwise the Virgin Mary.
Second- The Deity.
Third- Peter.
Fourth- Some twelve or fifteen canonized popes and martyrs.
Fifth- Jesus Christ the Saviour- (but always as an infant in arms)


My thesis is that this ranking is entirely proper. This ranking is a useful and appropriate order to list the Holy Personages. This is how things ought to be, for any theology which defines ‘Jesus Christ the Saviour’ as ‘God from God, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.’

Let’s say I wanted to take the train from Mombasa to Kampala. Ultimately, and trivially, this is only possible because somebody built a railway line from Mombasa to Kampala. This was a tremendously expensive engineering project. It was technically very impressive. I understand many of the workers were eaten by lions. It was an uneconomic move in the imperialist Great Game, where Britain needed to control Egypt to guard the sea-route to India, and needed to control the sources of the Nile so no one else could use them to put pressure on Egypt, and needed some decent way to get to the sources of the Nile in less than a long time. But do I need to know any of this stuff? No. I just need to know where to buy my ticket, and have enough cash and the appropriate stamps in my passport. It would be a petty and bizarre bureaucracy that forced me to pass a test on the history of the railway before letting me ride on it.

In the same way: let’s say we grant that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a vitally important and necessary part of God reaching out to man that has transformed the relation between us and made it possible for us to reach God. Does this mean we have to know the name of Jesus? Or pay any attention to him at all? I think, no. No, in direct proportion to how worthy God is actually worthy of our worship. If He is outside of time and space, if He is omnibenevolent and omniscient with respect to the universe, He will make it possible for us to reach out to Him wherever and whoever we are. God’s reaching out to us is a fait accompli: what matters now is our reaching out to God.

Now, if you accept an orthodox Christology, you cannot possibly use the life of Jesus Christ as a model for your own response to God. Sure, we can listen to what he said, and we can throw ourselves on his mercy, but imitate him? All of our discussion here so far about the nature of God, all of C. S. Lewis’ metaphors about oysters and Mark Twain’s metaphors about microbes, all the careful refinements of the definition of the Incarnation in which any common-sense simplification we try to make invariably dumps us into heresy- and I endorse all of those refinements, I see why they are there, I agree with their purpose- all of these things raise an insurmountable barrier between our understanding of Jesus the man and our understanding of ourselves. I don’t think there is any way to think ourselves through that barrier.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus may be the ultimate myth and symbol and case study of God reaching out to man, but the people we ought to remember most, the ones that ought to appear to rank highly in any ranking of ‘Holy Personages’, should be those who have responded heroically in reaching out to God. These are people we can be expected to imitate, whose lives will have lessons for us.

The first and greatest exemplar of man reaching out to God in the Christian story is obviously the maid Mary, saying ‘thy will be done’ and casting her whole life on the mercy of a divine messenger only she could see. There were no other Christians for her to imitate. There was no Christ she could see. It was a pure leap of faith. So, why not put her first?

The proper study of man is man, so Mary ought to be first. But it is entirely proper that after this first and greatest example of man reaching out to God, we should fix our attention next on the God revealed to us, who is not only Spinoza’s creator and sustainer of the universe, but a person, described to us as a Father.

Then, we come to other important exemplars of man reaching out to God:

The rash disciple who was the first to recognise Jesus as the Christ, and was crucified upside down.

Those twelve or fifteen Popes and Martyrs who also spent their lives in reaching out to God.


And then, only then, Jesus Christ the Saviour, at an age when his humanity is not overwhelmed and made incomprehensible by his divinity.

Here's that article by celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach that I couldn't find before. The important bit is this bit:

Yishayahu Leibowitz once said that the quintessential symbol of Christianity
is God dying on a cross for the sake of man, thereby making humans the center of
the faith. But the essential symbol of
Judaism is Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son for God, thereby establishing God at the epicenter of human endeavor to which all action must be directed.


Man must be prepared to give up his life for God, not the reverse.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da … yet again

Of course, it is also possible to mislead with the absence of words.

Here is a picture from the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald showing some protesters in Israel a few days back at the time of George Bush the Greater’s visit, with placards calling him an accomplice to terrorism. The caption is banal and uninformative, and I am sure that most readers of the paper would have breezily assumed that the protesters were people like themselves, calling the American and Israeli leaders terror-friends from a point of view on the ‘left’ which sees military action in places like Jenin and Fallujah as terrorism. But... I am sure that is not who the protesters are at all. In the pictures Bush and Olmert are wearing Palestinian-style headdresses. They are being called terror-friends from a point of view on the ‘right’ which sees establishing a Hamas-led state that lobs missiles at Sderot as complicity in terrorism.

It is always an interesting exercise, when listening to a report on the radio that mentions Palestinian deaths due to Israeli military action, trying to figure out how many of them were people who were shooting back. There always seems to be an effort to blur the difference between ‘militant’ and ‘civilian’. My estimate is 15 out of 18 were militants for day-before-yesterday’s Israeli incursion into Gaza. The report I heard last night said that Hamas had ‘taken responsibility’ for rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel. Surely part of ‘taking responsibility’ for attacking someone is being prepared to say ‘it’s a fair cop’ when they attack you back?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Spero: Question Eight

There is a Baha’i metaphor of ‘Progressive Revelation’ as a sort of relay race with fire.
The lamp of revelation is passed from one runner to another, as one revealed religion succeeds another in its proper time. So Isa was a true prophet for his time, but passed the lamp on to Muhammad, and likewise Muhammad was a true prophet for his time, but it came to an end when he in turn passed the lamp of revelation on to Baha’ullah, bearer of the proper revelation for his time (which is ours).

Needless to say, when I first encountered this metaphor I recoiled from it strongly.
It is somewhat disingenuous to claim to cleave root and branch to the essential unity of all religions, but have this picture of one ineluctably and properly giving way to the next. Any Jew-slaughtering Crusader in the Rhineland, up to his knees in gore back in 1096, would surely agree. ‘Aye, the revelation of Moses was good enough then, but times have moved on, eh?’ (Hack, slash, pitiful cry for mercy, stomp, splat)

I think most any observer of history would agree that the vast majority of the achievements of Christianity, for good and ill, and the most complete and self-consistent expositions of Christian thought., were after the life of Muhammad. Most observers of history would probably agree with me that the greatest achievements of Judaism, and the most complete and self-consistent expositions of Jewish thought, were after the life of Christ. It did not seem credible that these religions would persist and develop and achieve things, if the light of revelation had ‘moved on’. There’s that bit of Acts I quote all the time: ‘If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’

My counter-metaphor was of plants in a garden. Actually, I think my first metaphor was of a glove, but that did not turn out so well. No religion owns the light. It is not passed from one to another. They are all down here, striving toward the light, which is up there. Each revealed religion is not meant to stay the same. Each revealed religion is planted like a seed, and is meant to grow and develop. Each religion is nourished by and grows towards the same sun; each religion is composed of many parts, most of which are useful and necessary, some of which may be diseased or superfluous. They are, all of them, clearly still a long way from the sun. It will be valid to say that some of them are, on average, closer to the source of light; it will be valid to say that parts of each one are closer or further away from the source of light. It will be probable that bits of different plants will actually be closer to one another than they are to different parts of the same plant. These are all bits of the metaphor that are meant to be there.

Does that sound dreadfully relativist and wishy-washy? Maybe it is, a bit. But implicit in it is the idea that there is an objective scale by which we can say one religion is on average better than another, even if we don't have access to that objective scale. And that some bits of each religion are objectively functional and good, and others are dysfunctional and bad.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Twenty Years from Fargo

I have been reading ‘Innocents Abroad’.
It is an unabashed celebration of a type of human that has been insufficiently celebrated in fiction. It is about that kind of boorish American who calls every foreign guide 'Ferguson' and every Arab village 'Jacksonville', compares every body of water unfavourably to Lake Tahoe, who sneaks ashore in contravention of quarantine regulation, tries to break into the Acropolis after hours, climbs into people’s gardens to steal grapes, and makes jokes at the expense of the quaint foreigners whenever possible. We have lost the ability to celebrate that sort of behaviour. We just deplore it now. And indeed, it is very irresponsible and naughty.
But gosh, it does sound like a dreadful lot of fun. I only have vague memories of reading ‘Innocents Abroad’ before, but it was two of Mark Twain’s other books about Americans stranded among quaint foreigners, ‘A Tramp Abroad’ and ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Courtthat taught me how I ought to behave when abroad. And I think, though maybe we didn’t quite measure up to Mark Twain’s standard, that we three representatives of the brash New World didn’t do such a bad job on our lark through the Northern Hemisphere twenty years ago.
We didn't compare Lake Como to Lake Tahoe, no sir, but as I recall we did scramble over a six-foot wall into somebody's garden there.

I wanted to segue from this unpromising beginning to some theological observations based on another passage in 'Innocents Abroad', but to do so I needed to link to an article by celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach that I can't find any more. Oh well. I expect it will turn up.