07 April 2008

Written and Responded

The following is a post by Matthew Good. Below it, a super-intelligent response from tricky. I'm posting it here because I found the original very interesting, and the response very enlightening.

A Tyranny Of Conscience

Whether you are a Christian or not, the significance of the symbolism of Jesus Christ is something that, in today’s world, is rather important. Throughout my life I have never really viewed Jesus as a divine being, nor one sent to earth by a God for a specific purpose. As a younger man I came to that conclusion given the contradictory temperaments of God displayed in the New and Old Testaments. But when it comes to Jesus, I have always believed that he represents something far more human than divine, and that when viewed in that context symbolizes something far more powerful than he ever could through the possession of divinity.

At their core, the most important declarations of Jesus were far more humanist than religious. They were immediately actionable and did not require the belief in anything otherworldly. All they required was for people to view others as they would have themselves viewed, creating a universal premise that placed us in each others shoes. His beliefs promoted justice and equality for all people, compassion, tolerance, and most importantly, the fact that we will always struggle to enact such virtues. Such were the rebellious sentiments of a man whose teachings have since become moral conveniences preached by many that, in the same breath, ignore them because of the difficulties of their true enactment.

The Bible offers contradictions a plenty, there is no doubting that, as Matthew 5:38-42 aptly demonstrates…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

The contradiction, of course, rests in the fact that an eye for an eye is found in Exodus, which is a part of the very same Christian text that contains the above passage taken from The Sermon On The Mount. Thus, which is to be deferred to when it comes to how we conduct ourselves? One offers the luxury of equal retribution, the other wholeheartedly rails against it.

In that same oration, Jesus also uttered the words - “judge not lest ye be judged”, another rather humanist assertion, not to mention a very passive one.

Passivism was, in truth, the cornerstone of Jesus’ message. That no matter the forces arrayed against us, our willingness to succumb to the need for vengeance or aggression only leads to our own undoing. We have, of course, throughout history, provided ourselves with examples of why this might not be prudent, but is does not change the conviction of his message. He would ultimately go to the Cross both unrepentant and without hatred in his heart. He would die, and for many that death religiously symbolizes his sacrifice for the cleansing of sin, but when that is removed from the equation we find a man, just a man, that died for his beliefs without resorting to violent methods to oppose a tyranny. The most important factor in that sacrifice is that it was in opposition to a tyranny of conscience.

While many world leaders defer to their Christian beliefs in press conferences and public addresses, none of them truly infuse their beliefs into policy. Millions of right-wing North American Christians, who have corrupted the simplest of truths, believe that a holy war is now being waged against a religion that they know nothing about, and in doing so ensure the existence and promotion of a tyranny of conscience.

The Prophet Mohammed, in his last sermon, known as The Farewell Sermon (Khutbatul Wada), said - “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”. In truth, this is a universal principle that exists in Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. It is also the cornerstone of what is known as ‘The Global Ethic’.

Many of you have, no doubt, heard the expression ‘The Golden Rule’. What many of you might not be aware of is that it has roots that stretch back into antiquity, long before the birth of major modern religions, and is also known as the Ethic of Reciprocity. Its maxim is contained in a single sentence, one that is the cornerstone of the concept of modern human rights - “treat others as you would like to be treated.”. This maxim, which was first espoused by various Greek philosophers, can be found in every major world religion in some form, meaning that in each of them, at some point in their doctrines, they support the concept of human rights.

On this day, Christians observe the resurrection. But what has always perplexed me is the focus given to the ascension of Jesus and not what he left behind.

We have all often heard it spoken - where is God amidst all this suffering? There are those that believe that our suffering is his will, and that our time on this planet, and how we endure that suffering, dictates the grace with which we are received hereafter. I will not lie and say that I have not uttered that same query in the past. But having done so have come to somewhat of a conclusion. If there is a God, I do not believe that he is absent, nor do I believe him uncompassionate. Just immobilized by shame and embarrassment.


Response by tricky:

"His criticisms tend to be the same criticisms that the most thoughtful laity, i.e. intelligent people who have never studied the bible critically, would come up with. However, if you’re not trained in literature, in hermeneutics, in textual criticism, it is difficult not to spin the bible and make it say whatever you want. You can make it say that barbecuing is something God will punish you for. Really.

The first problem he mentions is “As a younger man I came to that conclusion given the contradictory temperaments of God displayed in the New and Old Testaments”. That was the entire point of Jesus’ sacrifice – God sacrificed himself *to* himself. Previously, the Hebrews were expected to mollify the angry God of the Old Testament by doing various things, such as animal sacrifice, and the book of Leviticus is an instruction manual on how to get in really good with God – if you were, say, a farmer, and there was a drought, and you really needed some rain, you’d follow the Leviticus prescriptions, pray a lot, and sacrifice some prized livestock. God’s baseline ‘mood’, if you will, was angry. The Hebrews were frequently doing things that enraged him, and it didn’t take a lot to get him all furious. So, you have this angry God. This is where propitiation comes in. This term means ‘turning someone angry to happy’. Jesus’ death on the cross completely, thoroughly mollified the angry God. It was such a good and satisfying sacrifice, it was the last one, the once and for all sacrifice to end ALL sacrifices.

Anyways, Jesus’ sacrifice changed God’s most basic nature, and now, he’s the happy God of the New Testament. Instead of sacrifice and rule following, arcane practices and all of that, all one has to do is love God, and he’ll love you back.

“But when it comes to Jesus, I have always believed that he represents something far more human than divine, and that when viewed in that context symbolizes something far more powerful than he ever could through the possession of divinity.” This part makes no sense – if Jesus wasn’t God, his sacrifice wouldn’t have done the trick to finish sacrifices for all time – Jesus as simply and only a man he could not have changed God’s will, mind and nature. And what is this ‘more powerful’ thing that Jesus symbolizes? Good never really brings to bear on that particular point. Yes, Jesus was fully human, but he was also fully God, and when he said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he said that as a devout and practicing Jew. He was a lot of different things, but him being God does not in any way affect him being fully human, or from speaking authoritatively as a human.

The Propitiation also answers’ Good’s Bible quotation from Matthew, and the contrast from Exodus. Again, there is no contradiction, because God had changed from being an angry God to a happy God. Good says “Thus, which is to be deferred to when it comes to how we conduct ourselves? One offers the luxury of equal retribution, the other wholeheartedly rails against it.”

This assumes that the Bible is a rulebook. I know that there are lots of people who do use the Bible as a rulebook, but that doesn’t mean that is what the Bible is for. Bear in mind that for a long time, the congregation was not permitted to read the Bible, only educated members of the clergy. In the Jewish tradition, one must study the Torah, and in Christianity that’s been largely ignored, and people bring in their own biases, prejudices, and largely uneducated reading to the text – ignoring that the Bible is a piece of literature that has a distinct context, and written originally in Hebrew mostly, with some Chaledean, Greek and Aramaic, (in the New Testament), etc. There is a saying that says something along the lines of Hebrew being a lion of language – lots of power and beauty, and frankly, it doesn’t map on perfectly to any other language. There was extraordinary care taken in translating the Bible, first into Greek (the Septungient) and then into Latin (the Vulgate), but in the end, the Bible in English is a watered down version. One small example is Jesus said something like ‘if your eye is good, then the whole body is good’, but in the Greek it ends up being some much more robust, more along the lines of ‘if you see things without always relating them to your own well-being, then you’ll be spiritually healthier.’ I don’t remember an English to Hebrew example, but I mean you can see right from that example that there’s going to be a lot of textual robustness that’s simply washed away. Hebrew also has other things that don’t fit at all with English, if you look at Solomon’s Song of Songs, the narrator says ‘your breasts are two spotted roes’. He’s not saying that your boobs look like two young deer, Hebrew is an evocative language, and how it works is how it makes one feel – the joy and peacefulness, or whatever he’s feeling is the same feeling when he sees his lover’s breasts. Repetition is also much, much more significant in Hebrew than in English as well. Saying something three times has the implicature of saying ‘indeed’, and suggesting the same thing seven times indicates perfection.

“In that same oration, Jesus also uttered the words - “judge not lest ye be judged”, another rather humanist assertion, not to mention a very passive one.” It’s really not. The implication here is that in judging you will be judged yourself, and not by other people. By judging, how you treat other people, is how you will be judged by God. This notion is repeated further in Matthew, in what has become The Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ How we treat others is of extreme importance in the New Testament. Love your neighbours, forgive your enemies. What Good is not taking into consideration is the power inherent in these positions, the difficulty, the personal maturity and strength it takes to ‘turn the other cheek’. Passivity it isn’t. It’s power, and control over the one thing in this world you might have a little control over – yourself. Matthew Good even mentions that it is Jesus correcting the previous teachings found in Exodus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Good doesn’t seem to understand that even right there, in the quote he gave, Jesus was telling his followers that the old way of rule-following, of anger, is over.

“Passivism was, in truth, the cornerstone of Jesus’ message. That no matter the forces arrayed against us, our willingness to succumb to the need for vengeance or aggression only leads to our own undoing.” Matthew Good is partly right here, there is certainly an implication that one should not resist evil when it comes to one’s self. However, it does not suggest that one shouldn’t be more assertive when it comes to the protection of others. Jesus’ sacrifice, for example, was an example of that protection.

“He would die, and for many that death religiously symbolizes his sacrifice for the cleansing of sin, but when that is removed from the equation we find a man, just a man, that died for his beliefs without resorting to violent methods to oppose a tyranny. The most important factor in that sacrifice is that it was in opposition to a tyranny of conscience.” So, on the assumption that it wasn’t a spiritual thing, that Jesus was a man martyring himself for his ideals, my response is, so what? What did it do? What was the point? Did it change one little wee thing? If you take away the spiritual component, there’s no limit to the reasons why Jesus did what he did. He could have decided to get himself up on the cross so everyone would rise up in anger and attack the Romans, since he had such a following. No passivity there, and no reasons why that *wasn’t* the reason Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. If an assumption leads to contradictory results, there’s something wrong with the assumption: Matthew Good assumes that Jesus died for such-and-such a reason, but with no evidence in the text – and the text is the only source for evidence. That’s not a good reason to suppose something. On the other hand, it is in the text that Jesus believed that his death would change the way people and God related to one another.

I do feel he made an interesting person rather banal, which suggests to me he’s not doing great work in interpretation.

“While many world leaders defer to their Christian beliefs in press conferences and public addresses, none of them truly infuse their beliefs into policy.” Ok, but do we, as a society want that? If Muslims were in control, there’d be no alcohol served in public, never mind the interesting things that would happen to women’s rights if more radical sects were in control. I can’t imagine that he somehow wants there to be no separation between Church and State, yet he seems critical of beliefs not being made into policy. Speaking as a devout whatever I am, I sure as hell am happy that Paul Martin didn’t make his beliefs as a 3-times-a-week church going Catholic into Canadian policy.

Good’s next sentence nearly completely contradicts what he said above: “Millions of right-wing North American Christians, who have corrupted the simplest of truths, believe that a holy war is now being waged against a religion that they know nothing about, and in doing so ensure the existence and promotion of a tyranny of conscience.” He said previously that none infused their beliefs into policy, but those right wing North American Christians are trying their hardest to do just that- which he apparently wants, and doesn’t want. He’s being inconsistent here.

What he references next is the Golden Rule stuff. He’s right, it is antiqutated, it originally came from Hannurabi’s Code, which was Chaledean/Babylonian, a little further back than the Greek philosophers, who never directly discussed the subject. Believing that there’s a minimum basic decency that you must always respect in your interactions with others seemingly entails some sort of universal passivity as a moral absolute – that is, there is no case in which it’s moral to resist violent oppression with violence. So, if you’re being raped, Matthew Good doesn’t seem to have good reasons to violently oppose your attackers, or use violence to defend someone else who’s being raped. To turn it back to Jesus saying: ‘But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ This is not a mandate. This is not an absolute, it’s something said within a specific context, for a specific audience. He’s literally saying this is the way to act if someone hits you in the face – there might be better way than retaliating. But he also later on told his disciples to go buy swords, and one can’t reasonably assume that the swords were for slicing cucumbers or some other passive purpose. Good didn’t bring this into consideration, either, and again, and if an interpretation doesn’t seriously take into account relevant texts, it should not count as a good interpretation. He’s reduced a controversial, historical figure into someone who spouts banal platitudes whose death was meaningless, and comically tragic.

Good suggest that the Golden Rule entails human rights. That’s entirely anachronistic – human rights are a contempory invention, and while human rights are compatible with the Golden Rule, NOT having human rights is also compatible with the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. There’s nothing there that suggests that being a human inherently entails having rights; all it says is treat others the way you want to be treated – nothing about whether or not being human is relevant to what sort of treatment you should expect. Others surely implies ‘other humans’, however, it suggest that how we should act towards others is in virtue of how we want to be treated. What this shows is that you can believe in the Golden Rule, but not human rights – you can think that how you should be treated has nothing to do with being human, but maybe only in virtue of being a member of society, a club, a sex, an orientation, etc. There’s no reason to expect that being human entails certain treatments from others while still maintaining the Golden Rule. Also, the Golden Rule itself breaks down in cases of masochism – if you all you wanted was to be boiled in oil, this is what makes you happy, I don’t think a reasonable person would agree that one should go and boil others in oil, even if this is how one wants to be treated.

Finally, “On this day, Christians observe the resurrection. But what has always perplexed me is the focus given to the ascension of Jesus and not what he left behind.

We have all often heard it spoken - where is God amidst all this suffering.” This is a nearly classic example of the Problem of Evil argument. The argument, and Good’s implication is that there’s too much evil in the world for there to be a God. The answer to that is another question – what is an acceptable amount of evil in the world? There isn’t an acceptable level of evil – evil, is, well, evil, and I expect that most people would agree that any amount of evil is too much, by definition. That leaves us, perhaps with wondering why the world isn’t perfect. God could have, in his perfection, made the world perfect, but the problem there is that he would then being creating himself again, since he is the only possible thing that is perfectly perfect. Perhaps he could have made the world perfect in every way except one way, and thereby not be redundant; however, anything less than the goodness of God is missing the mark, given the assumption that God created the world. Missing the mark is the very definition of ‘sin’.

So, we’re assuming that God exists, and that he could have made a world less evil. So, then we’d have to understand the context in which we’re using the concept of ‘evil’. The conception of evil in this context does mean anything short of the glory of god, since we are assuming that God exists, and is good. Clearly, anything God creates falls short of the glory of God, therefore, evil exists.

There’s too much suffering in the world, and that’s evidence there’s likely no God. Or, there is no possible moral reason for God to create a world with this much suffering. The second statement begs the question – how can we know there is no moral reason? The first statement ignores that there’s evidence that God did create the world, and the evidence may count both ways. Pascal, of Pascal’s Wager fame, suggests that there’s enough light and darkness so that humans can freely choose God, or reject God. It does seem to be an argument by analogy: it seems to suggest that well, if we were God, we’d do a much better job on the conquering evil front. That seems, well, kind of ridiculous. A Christian response to the problem of evil is to say, well, evil and suffering reveals God’s glory through Christ’s suffering on the cross."

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