07 November 2004

Some Favorite Quotations



"... what souls are these that run through this black haze?"
And he to me: "These are the nearly soulless
whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise.

They are mixed here with that despicable corps
of angels who were neither for God nor Satan,
but only for themselves. The High Creator

scourged them from Heaven for its perfect beauty,
and Hell will not receive them since the wicked
might feel some glory over them."

— Dante, Inferno III,29-48, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.

"Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves."" — T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)


Church & State

The sword and crook are one, and only evil
can follow from them when they are together;
for neither fears the other, being one.

— Dante, Purgatorio XVI,110-112, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.



You mortals do not walk a single way
in your philosophies, but let the thought
of being acclaimed as wise lead you astray.

Yet Heaven bears even this with less offense
than It must feel when It sees Holy Writ
neglected, or perverted of all sense.

You do not count what blood and agony
planted it in the world, nor Heaven's pleasure
in those who search it in humility.

Each man, to show off, strains at some absurd
invented truth; and it is these the preachers
make sermons of; and the Gospel is not heard.

— Dante, Paradiso XXIX,85-96, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.


The Big Picture

Oh grace abounding that had made me fit
to fix my eyes on the Eternal Light
until my vision was consumed in It!

I saw within Its depth how It conceives
all things in a single volume bound by Love,
of which the universe is the scattered leaves...

— Dante, Paradiso XXXIII,85-90, John Ciardi, trans., Mentor Books, 1952, 1982.



Oh shame to men! Devil with Devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men only disagree
Of creatures rational, though under hope
Of Heavenly Grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
That day and night for his destruction wait.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 496-505, 1667

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is far worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. — John Stewart Mill


Faith & Reason

Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 20, 1955

The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 34, 1955

Religious thinking is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and to forfeit the immediacy of insights, to forget that the known is but a reminder of God, that the dogma is a token of His will, the expression of the inexpressible at its minimum. Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 116, 1955

It is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he thinks he knows. — Epictetus

If you shut your door to all errors, truth will be shut out. — Rabindranath Tagore


Faith & Humor

God is a comic, playing to an audience that's afraid to laugh." — Voltaire
Thanks to Rev. Janet Sunderland, August 2001 Newsletter, Church of Antioch, Kansas City

"When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me." - John Howard, past Olympian, ultracyclist, and Ironman Triathlon world champ


Inanimate Things

Inanimate objects are dead in relation to man; they are alive in relation to God. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 97, 1955


Ultimate Concern

Certainly God is more than "a name for that which concerns man ultimately." Only saints are ultimately concerned with God. What concerns most of us ultimately is our ego. The Biblical consciousness begins not with man's, but with God's concern. The supreme fact in the eyes of the prophets is the presence of God's concern for man and the absence of man's concern for God. — Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 127, 1955


The Body of Christ

If we despise our brother, our worship is unreal, and forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with our hearts full of contempt, and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and collectively, worshipping an idol.... Not just our own anger, but the fact that someone has been hurt, damaged, or disgraced by us, who "has a cause against us," erects a barrier between us and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our fellow men. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world's hatred, its contempt and its contumely. For if we do that, we are murderers. Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today, and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 144-145, 1937.



It is our duty as human beings to proceed as though the limits of our capabilities do not exist. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)
Thanks to Kay Goodnow

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. — Edmund Burke (1729-1797)


Studying without a Teacher

Too often we put saddlebags on Jesus and let the donkey run loose in the pasture. — Rumi, The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, trans., 256.
Thanks to Christopher Hoover.



A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, write a sonnet, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. — Robert Heinlein, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.



The way you train the high-flying administrators, the mandarins, can be summed up in one sentence. It is to train people to be at ease with their consciences when they take decisions about things they do not understand. — Alan Dickinson (quoted in Rhodes, Deadly Feasts)

Many companies are attracted by a fantasy version of empowerment and simultaneously repelled by the reality. How lovely to have energetic, dedicated workers who always seize the initiative (but only when 'appropriate'), who enjoy taking risks (but never risky ones), who volunteer their ideas (but only brilliant ones), who solve problems on their own (but make no mistakes), who aren't afraid to speak their minds (but never ruffle any feathers), who always give their very best to the company (but ask no unpleasant questions about what the company is giving them back). How nice it would be, in short, to empower workers without actually giving them any power. — Peter Kizilos



It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter 4, Section 6, "What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear"

It's unwise to pay to much, but it's worse to pay to little. When you pay too much you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it si well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better. — John Ruskin 1819-1900

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. - T. S. Eliot

Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote! - Benjamin Franklin



The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. — Philip K. Dick (1928- 1982)

It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is. — William Jefferson Clinton

When ideas fail, words come in very handy. — Goethe



In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. — George Orwell
Thanks to Jay Nelson, Church of Antioch, Albuquerque, who uses it as a an e-mail signature.

As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. — Josh Billings



I went out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time, I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics. - H.G. Wells, in The Time Machine as quoted at the end of Al Garcia's publication list.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away". - Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"



It is astounding to realize that perhaps half of all human knowledge has been discovered or created in the past century. But then again, so has half the bullshit. — Mrs. Scooper, circa 1988

There is a kind of stupidity with which even the Gods struggle in vain. — Schiller



The demand for equality has two sources: one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. At the present moment it would be very unrealistic to overlook the importance of the latter.

There is in all men a tendency (only corrigible by good training from without and persistent moral effort from within) to resist the existence of what is stronger, subtler, or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal small men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence…

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careles. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who persue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors.

Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death. A truly democratic education - one which will preserve democracy - must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly "high-brow." — C. S. Lewis, "Democratic Education" (1944)

03 November 2004

That Old Time Religion

Review: Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world throught him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved the darkeness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. — John 3:16-21, KJV

The meaning in the message

Before we jump into a critique of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," a decent respect for people who are other than Christian requires that we set the ground for the discussion by saying a few words about the film's premise.

From the New Testament writers, through St. Augustine to the present, Christian apologists (explainers) have used the narrative of Genesis 3 to establish the necessity for God to "beget" a Son who can bear God's Wrath against us for the Sin which we have inherited as a result of Adam and Eve (the first humans) having eaten a piece of fruit from the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" that God had forbidden them. To the first Christian community, almost all of whom were Jews familiar with Genesis, this made sense. But judging from the declining membership in mainline churches, it doesn't make sense to many people today.

Rather than scoff at the doctrine — and scoff one can, starting with St. Augustine's argument that we inherit Adam's Sin through our fathers' semen — let's try to extract its meaning by letting go of Genesis and focussing on the Crucifixion itself. And though we will only extract mere words, we ask that they may point to the Living Truth whose silence answered Pilate when he asked, with haughty cynicism, "What is Truth?"

Let's start with the barest outline of the Christian narrative: God, the Creator of the Universe and everything in it, chose to become born as an ordinary person, like you and me, named Y'shua (whom we call Jesus) about 2000 years ago, as we reckon time, in Judea (a remnant of the ancient kindgom of Israel, which in Jesus' time had been annexed and occupied by the Roman Empire). At the same time, God remained God, separate from Jesus, so that Jesus could only connect with God through prayer, just like you and me. Ordinary people, like you and me (many of the Judeans and their religious-political leaders), had Jesus killed because his practices and his preaching threatened their existence in three ways:
  • Jesus' laxity of ritual observance undermined the purity of Judeans' system of beliefs and worship practices (the root of both modern Judaism and Christianity). Many writings in their Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament Scriptures) led them to believe that purity of Religion was necessary to retain God's favor, which they believed necessary to sustain them as a people, especially under the brutal heel of Roman occupation.
  • Jesus' thinly veiled sedition against the Roman occupation of Judea (His "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's: render unto God that which is God's," would seem to indicate that he thought Judeans owed their primary allegiance to something greater than Caesar) threatened to ignite a new round of violent persecution by the Romans. The Judeans had been exiled from their land once before — into Babylon — and they were afraid the Romans would exile them again. Indeed, the Romans coined the term Palestina (after the Philistines) in order to divorce the Judeans from their land by changing its name.
  • And finally, the Judean leaders were concerned that Jesus would turn the subjugated (and angry) populace against them for desecrating their Faith by collaborating with the Romans. Certainly he seemed to demand a kind of "inner purity" that he accused them of not practicing.
So, they did the prudent (and self-serving) thing. They handed this charismatic, but dangerous kook over to the Roman authorities, who routinely killed barbarians (non-Romans) by crucifixion, a method so horrific, that no one depicted Christ on the Cross until about A.D. 400, a century after the practice had been abolished and had passed from living memory.

As for the Romans — they thought it only proper to kill any overly religious Judean who might be taken to impugn the Divine Mandate of Caesar to rule Judea or any other part of the whole world. As for the Judean leaders and many of the Judeans themselves — their moral compromise was in vain: within forty years, the Romans massacred the Judeans and dispersed the survivors into the wider world. (Which set the stage for Jewish and Christian sensibility to shape the mores of Western Civilization to this day.)

But then, on the third day after his execution, people began seeing Jesus alive, and having conversations with him in which they walked with him, touched him, and ate food with him. Finally, after many days he appeared to be taken upward into heaven.
These events transformed the followers of Jesus. They had been humiliated, disillusioned, and terrorized by the brutal and comtemptuous execution of their leader. But after the Resurrection, they embraced death — both his and their own — and defiantly proclaimed his teachings, his death by crucifixion, and his resurrection against all authorities, despite all ridicule, and despite all hazards. And they changed the world.

But first they had to explain the meaning of the events they had witnessed. Which means they had to interpret these events using words and images that would be understood by their audiences, both Judean and Greco-Roman.

Now all explanation is simile and metaphor. One can only explain the unfamiliar by likening it to something the novice already knows and understands. All human language is a series of symbols, which stand for things, or point to things, but are not the things themselves. One is not going to capture the infinite God in a finite string of words, even if that string is as long as the whole Bible. Nevertheless, they had to explain, and, between forty and ninety years after the events themselves, their explanations (which had become oral traditions of several tiny and persecuted minorities) were written down as the four Gospels familiar to us now. But even before the Gospels were written, the gifted, educated, and driven Apostle Paul, wrote letters that explained Christ in terms familiar to both the occupied and their oppressors.

Though it seems inoffensive to us now, the reaction of anyone who had seen a crucifixion to the Paul's declaration, "I knew only Christ, and him crucified," would be shock. They would think him to be an idiot. Yet many would listen for a while, in horrified fascination.

Jesus is indeed our Messiah, he would tell the Judeans, because he conquered the greatest enemies of all, Death and Evil. He came into this world precisely to submit himself to the worst they could do, and then to triumph over them, on our behalf. And now that he has triumphed, he will come back for every single one of us who will follow him and lead us to Eternal Life with God — not some dim semi-existence like the Judean Sheol, or the Greco-Roman Hades, but Eternal Bliss with the Father, the Son, and the angels.

The Judeans would understand Jesus in terms of the sacrifice of Abraham, and the lamb sacrificed at Passover, as being the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. For the point of all sacrifice is to give up something of value in order to make things right with God. Now God himself has provided the highest value, his Son, just as God provided a ram so that Abraham would not have to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. God's Son, Jesus, is the stand-in for us all, for the debt we owe God, because, on our own, we are not right with God. The Judeans would understand this through the narrative of Genesis, in which Death and hardship entered the world, because the first humans, Adam and Eve, disobeyed the only commandment God had given them.

To the Romans, Jesus would be understandable as a tragic hero, who, like Hector in Homer's Iliad, carried out his honorable duty, though the path of honorable duty was doomed to a tragic and painful end. He would also be understandable as a truth-teller, who, like Socrates, chose to die rather than to appease respectable society by abandoning the truth. The Romans would understand that we are not right with God by observing the evil and corruption rampant in society. They were also familiar with Death and hardship entering the world through an act of disobedience — Pandora opening Epimetheus' box, against his order.

To either audience, the occupied or the oppressors, Paul and the Apostles would preach that the crucifixion of Jesus had been necessary, not for human purposes, but for God's purpose of redeeming humankind from Sin (actually hamartia which refers to a tragic flaw or a tragic mis-direction, in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written) and the consequence of Sin — Death.

We, on the other hand, now know that hardship and Death were in the world from the beginning of Life, long before there were humans. Further, we know that evolution is the response of Life to hardship and Death, and that humans are one of the expressions of that response. In other words, God used hardship and Death to make humans. In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise. It is a shock, a horror, and a scandal. And since we don't want to be confronted by the inference that we are that bad, we deny it, and attack (at least verbally) those who proclaim it.

Ecce Gibson

"The Passion of the Christ" opens with the camera moving at night between tree trunks toward the sweating, trembling figure of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. "Oh my God, this is really Catholic," I think as I brace myself for a two-hour ordeal. James Cazviel portrays spiritual distress so intense that it manifests itself in physical agony even before Judas and the Sanhedrin's private guards arrive. (Protestants discreetly emphasize the spiritual agony of the Passion, while Catholics emphasize the physical suffering. Points to the Catholics — we Protestants are often too prissy about embodiment. On the other hand, most lay Catholics I know have never really thought much about theology.)

We go on to see Jesus beaten and spat upon by the Sanhedrin's guards, and then beaten, whipped, flayed, kicked, and crowned with thorns by Pilate's Roman soldiers. We see him forced to carry his own cross, which he embraces. We in the audience are relieved that his torture is nearly over, but the worst is yet to come. Gibson forces us to look as each nail is driven into Christ's sacred hands and feet. Mother Mary watches, her hands clenched into the gravel on which she kneels. I look down at my own hands, clenching the arms of my seat.

Other commentators have deplored this graphic depiction of violence as excessive and offensive, unaware of what views they have been spared. We do not see Jesus naked, even though the Romans commonly humiliated their victims by exhibiting them without clothing. We do not see Jesus raped, even though Roman soldiers had license to further humiliate their captives by sexual abuse. (Perhaps Jesus was spared such treatment, as he was spared the breaking of his bones, but the Gospels and Catholic tradition are silent on this point.) Nor do we watch for six or eight hours as Jesus hangs from the cross, the motion of each involuntary gasp for breath causing such agony that he prays it to be his last.

Other commentators take issue with some of Gibson's portrayals, as do I. Pilate, for one, comes off far too sympathetically. Roman writings by his contemporaries describe Pilate as being so wantonly cruel that he was eventually recalled (fired) from his position as Prefect (Roman Governor) of Judea, because his brutal repression of the Judeans was itself causing too much resentment. I can't imagine that Pilate would have given a damn about yet one more charismatic, faith-healing preacher. Even Jesus' admission, "My Kingdom is not of this world," would have offended him. The only kings were those to whom Caesar and the Senate granted that title.

By the same token, Caiaphas (the chief Priest) comes off too unsympathetically, and the story suffers his loss as a potential figure for instruction. I have given my own more sympathetic interpretation above. In Gibson's rendition, however, Caiaphas has about as much regard for human life as the Taliban, and even threatens Pilate with stirring up a rebellion if Pilate does not crucify Jesus.

Caiaphas and his followers may have been the official priests of the Temple, but they had been installed and maintained by Rome as useful collaborators, and everyone knew it. Those with legimate claim to be priests — descendants of Aaron and members of the tribe of Levi — had been suppressed, and their line of descent had been obsured. In other words, Caiaphas and the Judean religious-legal body called the Sanhedrin were in no position to start a rebellion.

They were not even in a position to execute a man (although stoning the occasional adulteress seemed to be okay). The Roman occupation reserved that power for itself. That is to say, Jesus was executed on Pilate's order.

By contrast, I almost weep for Peter's anguish at realizing how he had betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him. I feel the same even for Judas, who in his mortal regret for having betrayed Jesus, commits suicide before he could see the Resurrection, and seek the Forgiveness that the Risen Christ would surely have granted him. Perhaps these shadings of emotion are merely my projections, derived from my prior meditations on the Crucifixion. Or perhaps they are reactions to the shadings of portrayal in the cinematic art of Gibson and his cast.

May we legitimately ask of Gibson that he slant the portrayals ever so slightly toward more modern sensibilities? After all, the Gospels themselves are slanted toward the sensibilities of a Greco-Roman audience (they were written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic) living in the latter part of the first century, A.D. The Gospel writers whitewash Pilate and tar Caiaphas, because you don't win converts and avoid persecution by implicating your audience's favorite governing structures in a crime against the God-Man for whom you seek to win their conversion. But you must implicate some group — religion back then was even more of a team sport than it is now — so why not some group who wasn't able to defend itself, like the Judeans? And besides, the Judeans were there, many of them must have called for, or at least assented to, the Crucifixion, and just as most of them had successfully resisted contamimation of their religion by the Romans, most of them also resisted contamination of their traditional religion by the Jesus movement, which must have engendered some animosity on the part of the early Christians, both Roman and Judean.

[OK. I could call them "Jews," but the Judeans were divided into about five religio-political factions, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Jesus movement. Of these, the Pharisees evolved through the crucibles of the occupation and the Diaspora, and their creative reaction to them — the Talmud — into modern Judaism. The Jesus movement was absorbed by Greco-Roman culture and became Christianity, which means that Christianity is, culturally speaking, an extremely Hellenized branch of Judaism. The other factions did not survive the Roman occupation. Besides, the Romans didn't call them Jews, either. They called them Judeans, which is translated into modern languages as "Jews."]

So, the Gospels are anti-Judean, or at least anti-the-Judean-factions-that-were-not-the-Jesus-movement. Thus written, they have lent themselves to later interpreters who were anti-Semitic, which contributed to anti-Semitism becoming one of the Sins of the Christian Church. Can we therefore ask that Gibson re-slant the story, so that the Judeans appear more sympathetic, and the Romans less so?
Within limits, Gibson already does it. It is clear in the film that many Judeans are in the Jesus movement. Several members of the Sanhedrin itself challenge the legitimacy of Caiaphas' midnight "trial" of Jesus, before they are ejected. But the limits are narrow.

The limits are set by mostly by the Gospel texts as we have received them, collected, selected, and preserved for us by the Roman Catholic Church. And with the exception of a few touches, Gibson stays within them. Jesus and his Mother Mary, for example have few speaking parts in the Passion narratives, and therefore, few speaking parts in the film. Rather than fully developed characters, they are cinematic icons. Jesus, is the innocent Lamb of God, who bears the Sins of the World. Mary is the Mother is the embodiment of comfort and strength, even as she herself bears the unbearable torment of witnessing her Son's slow and brutal execution. Other than Christ, she alone seems to understand what is happening and to accept its necessity.

The other limits on Gibson's film are set by the extra-biblical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the Passion. One of those extra-biblical traditions, perhaps one may serve to illuminate Gibson's motivation.

As Jesus collapses yet again while bearing his Cross toward Golgotha, a woman steps forward to wipe his bloody face with a cloth. In Catholic tradition, she is only named for what she posesses, Veronica, the True Image (of Christ). Again, I feel tears welling in my eyes. If only the tradition were true, and if only the Veronica had not been lost. I care not so much to look on an image of Christ, whether true or not, but something in me yearns to touch, even to kiss, something that had touched my Lord in kindness. I surprise myself that I am capable of such piety.

Piety is obviously Gibson's motivation for making this film. It is a thank-you card from Mel to his Redeemer, and to the Church that instructed him in the Faith. Mel gave it everything he had, and stayed as close as the film-maker's art would allow to the text and traditions as given. His piety permits no slanting or softening to meet the demands of modern sensibility. Nor is it needed. Rather, modern sensibility has for too long been trying to forget its roots in the ancient faith. It is modern sensibility that could stand to be less smug.

So, bottom line. Is "The Passion of the Christ" anti-Semitic? As writer-producer-director, he had complete creative control over this film. I was told that the hand he chose to show driving the nail into Christ's hand is his own. (And until you can come to an understanding that, spiritually speaking, the Blood of Christ is on your hands, too, you have yet to make a truly Christian confession.)
The Passion of the Christ (both the narratives in the Gospels, and Mel Gibson's film) is a shock, a horror, and a scandal, but it is also the beginning of the Good News. The completion is the moment of Resurrection, with which the film ends.

If you are Christian, I recommend that you see "The Passion of the Christ" for the opportunity to expose yourself to the emotional impact of what it is you say you believe. If you are other than Christian, this is an opportunity to find out what makes the Christians with whom you share this world tick. There is very little "background" in the movie, so you might want to read one or more of the Gospels first. But don't bring the kids. It's rated R for a reason.

Editor's Note: After 2006, it appears that if you get Mel Gibson drunk, let him drive, and then try to arrest him, he gets anti-Semitic Tourette's Syndrome. The film may not be overtly anti-Semitic, but we're not so sure about Mel.

11 September 2004

GWOT, Islam, Big Brother and You

On this third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I must write a stream of consciousness. My day job has been demanding, which is why I have updated these pages infrequently this past year. I can't say that I get more than a 3000 mile away perspective out here on the Left Coast of California. On the other hand, maybe distance helps.

My reading this summer has been directed at trying to make sense of this new world we are in. I've read books like Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Re-Making of the World Order, Barnett's The Pentagon's New Map, and Jessica Stern's Terror in the Name of God. Now I'm in the middle of Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

What I find is that we are seeing a privatization of war, from something done by "Great Powers" (WW I and WW II) to something done by "Rogue States" (Iraq in Gulf War I) to something done by individuals with private armies (Usama Bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks). But Great Powers like the United States are not static entities. They respond to stimuli, and they adapt. By privatizing war, the Bin Ladens of the world think they have found a way to fight Great Powers, without presenting targets at which the Great Powers can strike back. In response to this, I think it is fair to expect the Great Powers to discover or invent new ways to fight, tailored to the new kind of war. Quite frankly, I hope that the first few snowflakes of discovery and invention have already begun to move down the mountain, triggering an avalanche that eventually lands on these private warriors.

On the other hand, since international legal structures recognize war as something only nation-states do to each other, I should call these private warriors, "illegal combatants." Illegal combatants are in a kind of limbo with respect to international law, which, as far as I'm concerned, is something they should have thought about before they got into this business.

Another thing they should have thought about is that war is lost by whoever quits fighting first. The illegal combatants have nobody who can surrender for them. Nobody who can signal the Great Powers that they have had enough. Nobody who can, on behalf of them all, ask the Great Powers to stop. At first glance, this might seem like a problem for the Great Powers. But as the Great Powers learn to fight the new kind of war, the Great Powers will make this a problem for the illegal combatants.

But I can't go on calling them illegal combatants. There is more to them than that, and it needs to be acknowledged. In the current conflict, known around the Pentagon as the Global War On Terror (or GWOT for short), the illegal combatants identify themselves a Muslims. But that isn't specific enough either. On one project I was involved with this past year, my boss's boss was a Muslim. He is a great guy, and I'd work for him again, given the chance.

No, they are not just Muslims. They have been called Islamo-Fascists by Francis Fukuyama, which is a pretty good term, because they are more Fascist than Islamic. This term concentrates on their zeal to force everyone to look and act like they do. There was a time in Afghanistan when you could get killed by the Taliban for trimming your beard too short. But that term captures what they do when they gain power over people. It doesn't address their attachment to war. I prefer a more perjorative term: jihaddicts. It is an amalgam of jihad (Islamic sacred effort or holy war) and addict, as in addiction, being hooked on alcohol, heroin or any other drug.

Yes, they won a successful jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980's. But did they quit when the war was over? No, they fought against their erstwhile Afghan allies until they took over most of the country. In the 1990's Afghanistan did not "harbor terrorists." Afghanistan was taken over by a government that was bankrolled by the present Jihaddict-in-Chief, Usama Bin Laden. Then, did they quit when they had won Afghanistan? No, they picked a fight with the United States on 9/11. (They had tried to pick this fight many times before, but they just couldn't seem to get our attention.)

Now, the jihaddicts use several charges against the West in general and the United States in particular to justify their actions to themselves, and to recruit more jihaddicts. There is some justice to some of these charges. But, suppose we fix all these complaints. The jihaddicts are in business to stay in business. They will "remember" or invent new charges and complaints. They won't even choose a new enemy. To complement their grandiose image of themselves, they need a grandiose enemy. That's the US, permanently in their gunsights, and the weaker we appear, the more fire we will receive.

It's also Russia, whom they are still targeting, even though Russia withdrew from Afghanistan. Just as things were about to get better in Chechnya and Ingushetia, the jihaddicts struck a school full of kids. We forget that when the jihaddicts struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we all felt that they had "crossed a line." Well, now they have crossed another line. It's what they do. Ever more, ever worse, trying to get that elusive high. (Ah the "Pleasure of Hating," the title of an essay by William Hazlitt. And yes, lines have been crossed against Muslims, but committing atrocities as revenge for atrocities is losing sight of the moral law as a whole, and Muslims want to think Islam is superior to other religions.)

Another thing the jihaddicts engage in is the rhetoric of humiliation. They claim that Muslims have been "humiliated" by non-Muslims at various times in the past. This is perhaps a poisonous residue of honor/shame-based cultures in which Islam has taken root, but it is not Islamic, as far as I, an outsider with a 3000 mile away viewpoint, can tell. Consider that Islam teaches that a Muslim is closest to God at the moment he or she bows his or her forehead to the ground in prayer. Muslims do this in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who taught them to do this by example and exhortation. Now the forehead of any praying Muslim cannot ever go below the forehead of the Prophet, because the ground that God created stops the forehead. In other words, when closest to God, the ordinary Muslim is on a level with the Prophet himself. Which means to me, that it is (or should be) theologically impossible for anyone to humiliate a Muslim, unless that Muslim chooses to be humiliated. In particular, maltreatment of Muslims, such as occurred at Abu Ghraib prison, does not humiliate the victims of that maltreatment — rather it humiliates the perpetrators, who should have had the mental and moral sense to treat Muslims decently. But I doubt that this theology of Muslim pride will catch on with the jihaddicts. They need their theology of humiliation to generate the rage that generates the new recruits who shed the blood of children.

What else they do is meticulously justify to themselves doing things that the Qur'an explicitly and implicitly forbids. Since they do this in the Name of God, and ask God's blessing, they imply that God approves what God has already declared to be manifest evil. Now attributing to God that which is evil is attributing to God that which the Qur'an attributes to Iblis (and equivalently, the Bible attributes to Satan). In other words, in order to enable themselves to pursue their addiction, the jihaddicts commit blasphemy.

Let's savor the irony of this. The Wahhabis are the puritanical ultra-reformist sect of Islam that destroys mosques that are too ornate and that even demolished the houses of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. They did this because they did not want people to worship or revere or associate anything with God, but God alone. Associating anything else with God, they call shirk, one of the worst sins. Yet the jihaddicts are overwhelmingly Wahhabi or Wahhabi-influenced. Surely, associating evil with God, is worse that associating something good with God. Surely, blasphemy is worse that shirk, even to a Wahhabi. But the jihaddicts continue on, oblivious to the Wrath that awaits them, and the Wahhabis, with their explicit encouragement of anti-Western hatred, keeps preparing new recruits for them. In some parts of the world, the Wahhabis even give the jihaddicts shelter and supplies, a sort of co-dependent relationship.

So the jihaddicts are blasphemers. They are also idolaters, because addiction forces the addict to make his or her drug of choice the most important thing in his or her life. If forced to choose, many addicts will choose to sacrifice any and all relationships in their lives to go on using the drugs to which they are addicted. Similarly, the jihaddicts choose jihad in preference to God. Again, the evidence is the way they minutely rationalize the Qur'an, the Sunnah, and the entire deposit of Islamic faith and law to support their actions, which directly and obviously violate those things. Again, such idolatry is worse than shirk. The Wahhabis ignore this and continue their message of hate against the West.

But while the rhetoric of the Wahhabis is anti-Western, that really captures only the surface. What really seems to me to be happening is Globalization. The West in general, and the United States in particular are the economic engines behind much of Globalization for now. But more engines are being added all the time. Think of India, China, Japan, Singapore, etc.

The hallmark of Globalization is connectedness, and its symbol is the Internet. I can type these characters tonight, and anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can read them tomorrow. Connectedness is necessary to participate in the global economy, to get what Friedman calls the Electronic Herd of investors to invest in your country. Without being connected, the Electronic Herd can't see into your country to find what to invest in, and they can't trust your country with their money if they can't see inside. And if you don't get them to invest in you, then you're poor, relatively speaking. But the price of connectedness is the free flow of information and ideas. People see how other people live. They are free to reject what they don't like and adopt what they do like.

This is what the jihaddicts really hate about Globalization. Let me express it as an oversimplified bottom line:

If Globalization comes to your country, your women may still choose to cover their heads, but you won't be able to keep them under house arrest for their entire lives.

Ultimately, that's what I think its about. We have to beat the jihaddicts, and the way to do it is the liberation of women, by way of continued Globalization. In other words, GWOT, the Global War on Terror can be lost without sufficient use of force, but it can only be won by increasing freedom and ability of everyone on earth.

So are we winning or losing? If you get your news from the Western media, you cannot tell. Western media report conflict, action, and especially body count. Body count, however, is the measure of success of the jihaddicts. The more non-Muslims they kill, the more they think our resolve will weaken. As indeed it does, because all we see in the news is more bodies, with no end in sight. On the other hand, the measure of success of the good guys is what percentage of the health care, social services, and education they are providing. You see, if the good guys don't provide these things, the bad guys will, gaining credibility and support. This isn't common sense on my part. I read it in Tom Clancy's Shadow Warriors, which is a history of US Special Operations Forces. The soft stuff — health care, social services, education — is how an insurgency takes root and flourishes. The local recipients of these benefits cannot help but sympathize with the insurgents and give them "social cover." But the media do not report these measures of our success, because they think it is soft news, and therefore not important and especially not marketable. The result: we see only the enemy's numbers on the scoreboard, and none of our own. Even when we are winning it looks like we are losing. The press need to educate themselves that their reportage is one-sided against the society that guarantees their freedom, and is therefore not merely neglectful, but pernicious.

But there is another way to lose the GWOT. And that is by failing to build the legal and social norms to protect ourselves from some of the tools of GWOT. Let's rewind to the earlier part of this piece. I said that an avalanche of discovery and invention may some day (maybe even "before this decade is out" to quote John F. Kennedy) land on the jihaddicts. Is is unreasonable to suppose that some of that avalanche may consist of new ways to gather information on people? Does anyone remember John Poindexter and Total Information Awareness (TIA)? Now it would be just plain stupid and irresponsible to refuse to develop and use the means to find the jihaddicts, if we can do so. But is would be equally stupid and irresponsible to think that our present body of law can deal with ever inproving ways to gather and analyze information, whether by governments or corporations. I have already proposed that we recognize information that identifies a person as that person's property, and that we enlist our tradition of property law to aid in protecting people's privacy. I ring that bell again now.

And now let us pray. God, our Heavenly Father, those of us who live in liberty and abundance thank You, and ask You to help us extend liberty and abundance to everyone. We ask you to comfort those who have lost loved ones in the struggle against the jihaddicts. And we ask You to manifest your Judgement on the jihaddicts swiftly and soon, for the good of Islam and all religions. Amen.

God Bless you all.

13 June 2004

Bin Laden's Performance Appraisal

In what follows, take employee to mean servant of God.

1. Please provide your assessment of this individual's performance based on your observations, needs and/or expectations. Whenever possible, include specific examples.

Usama has built al-Qaeda, a global organization to wage war against non-Islamic peoples in general and the United States in particular by using the methods of terrorism to bypass their defenses and to deny them targets at which to strike back effectively. He has set up interlocking networks to recruit people of all levels of ability, to obtain supplies and weapons, and to distribute charity and propaganda to host populations. This organization can now sustain itself without his active leadership.

Usama orders and encourages atrocities committed by al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, and justifies them by lengthy arguments in which he and the mullahs he recruits work step-by-step from statements in the Holy Qur'an, the Sunna (the extra-Qur'anic deeds and words of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), and Sharia (Islamic Law and Jurisprudence).

In the first, he shows real genius at building a self-sustaining organization, with safehouses, operatives, training facilities and manuals, secure communications methods, all necessary matieriel, etc., but it exists to commit increasingly outrageous acts of mass murder in hope of starting a global war between everyone else and the Islamic world. Ultimately this ill serves the interests of Islam, both as a society of people and as a proselytizing religion.

In the second, he has committed the most meticulous and sustained work of blasphemy in the entire history of ethical monotheism (be it Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) by twisting the words of God and his Prophet to justify manifest and obvious evil.

2. In what areas of performance are the employee's strengths?

Usama is brilliant at marshalling money to make more money, at developing and grooming his personal contacts to maintain support for his organization, at mediating disputes amoung its supporters, and at organizing and motivating people. He has also had experience in agriculture and engineering. If his motives had been genuinely good, he could have been instrumental in raising the standard of living of the Islamic world.

3. What areas of performance should the employee concentrate on developing or improving?

Usama's understanding of God and Islam, the religion to which God has called him, is severely defective. Whether his intellectual failure to understand is what leads him to commit such enormous blasphemy and such atrocious deeds, or whether hate perverts his will so that he misunderstands Islam, or whether he perverted both his will and his understanding because he has become addicted to jihad (idolatrously loving jihad more than he loves God) is immaterial to this review. He needs to work on both his hate and his understanding.

4. What goals or expectations do you have for this individual in this coming review period?

Usama needs to seek teachers who are more connected with God, and less connected with their own hate, or worse still, with the one whom the Qur'an describes as "the Slinking One, who whispers into the hearts of men." He needs to repent of his ways, and stand down his organization, or else convert it to genuinely constructive action and charity.

My expectation is that Usama has set himself up to experience suffering and death as punishment for his crimes against humanity, including his fellow Muslims (which he callously regards as "collateral damage"). From his public statements, I believe he is fully prepared for this. For his crimes against God and God's creatures (his fellow humans), however, I fear that Usama may face a humiliating and sustained (perhaps eternal) punishment on the Last Day (the Day of Judgement), a fate for which he cannot be prepared.

5. Additional comments important to the evaluation of this employee.

Usama utters the most vile blasphemy, the most outrageous distortions of history, and the most viscious threats and orders with a calm and gentle demeanor. He may have tendencies toward a paranoid psychopathy. He seems to have taken on a narcissistic injury (an imagined or construed blow to his self-esteem) on behalf of all Islam and Islamic history, and to blame non-Islamic peoples, particularly Westerners and Americans, rather than to seek both the cause and the remedy from within.

09 February 2004

Commandments, Virtues & Sins

In case you need a reminder, here is an abridgement of the first ten (of 613) statements of law from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament):
The Ten Commandments
  1. No worshipping gods other than God.
  2. No worshipping human creations.
  3. No disrespecting God's name.
  4. No working on the Sabbath.
  5. No disrespecting parents.
  6. No killing.
  7. No adultery.
  8. No stealing.
  9. No lying to harm another.
  10. No wanting another's spouse or possessions.
You might also find it helpful to remember:
  1. Faith
  2. Hope
  3. Charity
  1. Prudence
  2. Justice
  3. Temperance
  4. Fortitude
  1. Humility
  2. Liberality
  3. Fraternity
  4. Meekness
  5. Chastity
  6. Temperance
  7. Diligence
  1. Pride
  2. Avarice
  3. Envy
  4. Wrath
  5. Lust
  6. Gluttony
  7. Sloth

02 January 2004

Many Worlds Apart

contributed by Stephen D. Unwin
author of The Probability of God

Be kind to people. Don't steal from them. Be honest. The world was created six thousand years ago.

To keep me on track in pursuit of the moral life, I often sketch out the tenets of my religious beliefs. These elements seem coherent, although I admit to being a little leery about one of them. It is, of course, the one about being honest. I feel intuitively that God would want me to tell old friends they still look good after all these years. I really need to explore further the theology of honesty.

I didn't always believe all these things. Take the matter of the world's genesis, for example. In darker days, I thought of myself as a weak anthropicist. The adjective 'weak' doesn't apply to the degree of my commitment, but reflects someone's notion that the principle in which I believed - the weak anthropic principle - is a weaker variant of another form. Paradoxically, it was for me the weak version of the principle that was by far the more powerful and compelling. Attaching to it the epithet "weak", I suspect, is in the same spirit of banks and insurance companies issuing "nondisclosure statements"; that is, they are titled antithetically to content in order to allay any fuss. The strong anthropic principle has it that the universe must possess properties that ensure the emergence of observers. This idea always struck me as having unnecessarily strong teleological overtones. The weak, yet, in my opinion, more powerful version of the principle is that any observed universe must have those properties necessary to produce observers. The reason that this principle is so powerful is that it lacks any of those attributes that expose it to the possibility of being wrong. It has the incontrovertible and awesome power of tautology. Anyhow, strong or weak, the anthropic principle is often proffered as the reason that the universe is seemingly fine-tuned - that is, all the physical laws and constants of nature are calibrated just-so - to produce galaxies, stars, atomic matter, and, ultimately, life.

For the weak anthropic principle to make sense as an explanation of fine-tuning, we must accept the notion that there exist many universes, most of them untuned and lifeless, but in which the fine-tuning issue would never be raised. Yet - and here's the point - some tiny fraction of these universes; that is, those in which the laws and physical constants are just right, would be life-bearing. We could then conclude, with compelling obviousness, that we must live in one of the few that are just right for us. So, if someone marvels, somewhat parochially, that had the fundamental constants of nature been just a few percentage points different, it would have resulted in chaos and black holes instead of structure and life, then we can inform them with confidence that there are indeed plenty of universes just like that, but it isn’t our problem.

Now, some might ask if there is really any economy of belief in accepting this multitude of universes in preference to, say, the idea of a single cosmic designer who went out of his way to do all that fine-tuning? Perhaps it's just my frugal, north-of-England upbringing, but, as a general principle, I've always considered vast numbers of universes to be a rather extravagant solution to any problem. Now to be fair, one can go some way toward putting these universes on a reasonably sound physical footing. There is the so-called Everett 'many-worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics that has the universe splitting continually as quantum mechanical wave functions collapse - where each outcome to a quantum uncertainty represents a branch in the split. On the other hand, all these branching universes are governed by the same physical laws, and so this model is of limited help with the fine-tuning question. Then again, the Everett model doesn't have the monopoly on multi-universe concepts. There's always the idea that there are multiple parallel universes with different sets of physical laws - perhaps even some without much in the way of laws at all, where a physicist would be hard-pressed to get one lousy paper out of the whole thing. Or, if arguing for the notion of 'parallel universes' makes you feel a little nerdish and Trekkie-esque, what about the idea of an ongoing cycle of big-bangs and big-crunches giving rise to serial universes? This, of course, raises the issue of geese, as I will explain.

Say I inform you of the existence of an invisible and generally undetectable goose in the middle of my desk. What’s the risk of having you falsify my assertion? I think I'm pretty safe on the science front because science is quite ill-equipped to take on this sort of pronouncement. After all, science's starting point generally involves detection and measurement, and my goose is quite immune to that type of thing. Perhaps a philosopher - one of those who deals in metaphysics - could challenge my proposition. Yet again, he or she, by profession, might be considered less credible than the goose.

Indeed, science's preoccupation with observation renders it quite impotent when it comes to denying or confirming the existence of the undetectable. So, returning to the universes: if they are in principle unobservable - which they are generally considered to be (with the possible exception of the Everett model, which wasn't of much use, anyway) - then this many-universe outlook could not really be considered a scientific one. Yet, it seems in some intuitive way to have a meta-scientific flavor to it, doesn’t it? I must confess that I'm not entirely sure why I think this. Perhaps it's that science has come to gain some foothold on the physical universe, and on geese too, for that matter. So, to posit the existence of the undetectable goose or the unobservable universes has a sciencey feel to it. This would be in contrast to, say, positing the existence of God, who could by no means be considered some variant on a scientifically concrete idea. This is the best rationale I can muster for my meta-science claim.

I admit that any one of these beliefs - in undetectable universes, invisible geese, or God - would require somewhat of a leap of faith. I suppose we must each take our own path - and the option to which I have come to attach my own faith is God. If I were pressed for some justification (notwithstanding the whole issue of explanatory economics, which might simply be a case of cheapness on my part), I think I might play the logical positivism card to argue that at least the God in which I believe is, in a way I won’t expound here, detectable.

Now, it would crush me to think that my beliefs could be construed as an affront to the faith of others. I would not wish to offend those whose faith attaches to the notion of multiple universes, nor to offend the goose cultists for that matter. I will not be accused of attacking the religions of others. I am, after all, fully aware that my belief is simply one of faith, and that the physics of the natural world provides no argument for this preference.

Be kind to people. Don't steal from them. Be honest. The world was created six thousand years ago. As I think about it more, that last thing about the world being six thousand years old could be another problem. I suspect it's probably true — raising the tougher and more pertinent question of this: true in which universe?