About Canonizing Acts of Paul

I recently responded to Peter W. Dunn in a post of his about the canonical inclusion of the Acts of Paul.  He is a New Testament scholar and the Acts of Paul is apparently a major interest of his, but I’m not sure if his interest is personal or simply academic.  The post I responded to is a Press Release:

Cambridge-trained scholar calls for Extension of New Testament Canon

In recent months, Dr. Dunn has formulated new theories about the Acts of Paul which have led him to create the Committee. “Initially, I thought the Acts of Paul should be dated to the middle of the second century. But now I am leaning towards a much earlier date around the end of the first century. That is almost 100 years earlier than scholars have heretofore believed,” said Dunn. When asked who was the author of the Acts of Paul, he replied, “Well, Tertullian at the beginning of the third century (ca. 205) reported that it had been written by an Asian (modern Turkey) priest who had to step down from his job. But we have reason to believe that Tertullian may have been misinformed. A good case could be made for Timothy. The Acts of Paul never mention him by name and that is strange. Timothy would have been only about 20 when he met Paul in the 50’s. So that would make him about 70 years old at the end of the first century when the Acts of Paul were written. St. Timothy, according to tradition, became the bishop of Ephesus. This accords well with Tertullian’s claim that it was a presbyter (priest) from Asia.”

The comment I first made:

It’s somewhat arbitrary what was included as canonical. Considering that not everything in the New Testament is from the first century, I’m not sure why that would be a reason to include something. The NT canon was developed based on ideological reasons. There were many Christian texts from the first and second century that weren’t included. For example, Marcion developed the first NT canon and his version of the NT texts weren’t included.

Dunn’s response:

Benjamin: thanks so much for making a comment.

I find it hard to determine your point. Are you arguing for the Acts of Paul as part of the canon or against it? Or are you just simply pointing out that the idea of canon is pointless?

If the dominant form of Christianity that emerged from the second century determined that certain books were canonical and others were not, then it is hardly surprising that such books were chosen on ideological grounds. Why is that a problem?

Finally, your point about Marcion would counter your point that many 1st and 2nd century texts didn’t make it into the canon. Marcion’s canon was restrained to ten Pauline epistles and to an abridged Gospel of Luke, all of which are in the NT canon.

My further explanation of my original point:

The idea of a canon isn’t necessarily pointless.  It all depends on what ideology you use to base the canon on, and our defining purpose must be made very clear.

I’m not in favor of the traditional canon for various reasons.  There is no single ideology that can harmonize all of the texts as the original writers and later redactors had a variety of ideological agendas.  You can find elements of many ideologies in the New Testament.  Also, Catholic doctrine changed over the centuries and so the ideology of the heresiologists isn’t even the same as that of later Catholics.  Even heresiologists disagreed with eachother at times as early Christianity was an endless ideological war.

Harmonization requires ignoring discrepancies and accepting Catholic orthodoxy over the authority of other Christian denominations.  Not all Christians and NT scholars agree that the Catholic church is a valid representative of early Christianity.  The problem is that there never will be agreement.  The closest we can come to a scholarly consensus about what was original would be something like the Jesus Seminar, but there is no end of people who criticize that methodology.

Marcion, the originator of the NT canon, had his own ideology and to the Marcionities it was orthodoxy.  I think his ideology has priority over the ideologies of the heresiologists that came after him.

Also, his ideology makes sense to me in one particular way.  I agree with his exclusion of Jewish scriptures.  I believe Jews have the intellectual rights to their own religious texts.  As I’d prioritize Marcion’s opinions over later heresiologists, I’d prioritize Jewish opinions about Jewish scripture over that of later Christians.

As for the New Testament, the later canon did include what he included, but also included that which he excluded.  Furthermore, of the texts he included, his versions would’ve been different.  Scholars know a fair amount about Marcion’s ideology now and this should be taken into account. 

For example, Robert M. Price attempted to recreate Marcion’s canon and so that is the type of example to follow.  BTW this comes from Price’s Pre-Nicene New Testament.  His methodology is one way to create a canon and seems very fair to me.  He simply included every relevant Christian text and fragment that survived from the centuries prior to the Council of Nicea.  His introduction to this collection is a useful analysis of the issues about what is considered canonical.

Besides being the first canonizers, something important to keep in mind is that so-called heretics were also the first to quote a NT text and the first to write commentaries on an Apolstolic writing.  The first commentators of Paul and John were later considered heretics.  I believe that in considering what is canonical the earliest Christian writers should be given the most focus.  Along with Marcion, I’d include Basilides, Valentinus, Heracleon, and Ptolemy; but others could be included as well.

I further would add that the Nag Hammadi scriptures should be given a place in this discussion.  They represent a major component of early Christianity before the heresiologists took power.  Those texts represent examples of the very evidence that orthodoxy attempted to destroy and so they give insight into what was original to the Christian tradition as opposed to the later ideologies that canonical texts were forced to conform to through redaction and interpolation.

Another factor to consider is dating.  This is tricky business because there are no original surviving texts.  As I understand it, all we have are later copies of copies which have been filtered through several hands of ideology plus simple mistakes and mistranslations.  The dating determines which texts were the earliest and so which were original.  One thing that is clear is that certain canonical texts were based on other canonical texts or else both based on even earlier texts or oral traditions.  If we are canonizing based on the authenticity of the earliest tradition, then we should exclude later texts.

My criticism is based on the reality that there are just too many factors and too many opinions.  The canon was originally created through political power and later military force that suppressed and destroyed all alternatives.  We now live in a different world.  Why not simply have many canons and leave it at that?  If any person wants a particular text included or excluded, all they have to do is find someone to publish their canon which is what Christians have been doing for centuries anyhow.

I guess the question is what is your purpose.  Is your interest merely academic or personal?  If it’s merely academic, most Christians would be uninterested in your attempt to expand the canon.  Your average Christian is contented to accept whatever church authority declares canonical and I doubt church authorities would have much interest in deferring to academic scholars.  If your interest is personal in that you belong to a specific denomination, then that is between you and the authorities of that particular church.

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Morality, Politics, and Psychology

Below is a comment I wrote to a blog post on the website of my local paper.  In it, I’m pointing out the problems of ideology that lacks a larger context of knowledge.  I do think that sometimes its necessary to declare a moral principle as valid even if it affronts the commonsense of the majority.  This is the ideal of natural law which makes sense to me personally.  Besides, its what our country is based on and heck it’s even what early Christianity incorporated from the Greeks.  Morality isn’t an issue of majority opinion.  There simply are certain inalienable rights that democracy stands or falls by. 

However, I don’t think it useful to invoke universal moral principles in order to dismiss intelligent discussion.  Standing by one’s principles is important, but so is basing one’s opinion on facts and logic.  If the data (objective and subjective, scientific and psychological) seem to undermine the practical usefulness of a principle, then that is very important info to consider.

Why are Condoms a Liberal Idea? , by IowaArtist

My response:

I’ve always thought it odd that people support abstinence only programs when they’ve been shown to increase the rate of pregnancies. I think there are two reasons.

1) The attitude is ideological. It’s a principle they believe in so strongly that it would go against their sense of morality even to consider the practical implications.

2) Also, the fact that teens still get pregnant just proves their belief that liberals have undermined our moral society. The teens getting pregnant is the direct fault of liberals and so giving into the liberal agenda would be even worse.

They don’t consider the possibility that teens would have sex whether or not liberals had political influence. What they seem to believe is that if they hold onto their principles long enough then maybe all of society (including teen sexuality) will change to fit their ideological vision of reality.

Another important factor is that, because of chemicals in our diet, girls mature at a younger age than they used to. Also, college has become a necessity for more people than in the past and so people now marry much later. Many kids start having sexual urges at 10 or so when they lack psychological maturity and they’re not likely to get married until their late 20s or early 30s.

Considering those facts, is it practical to promote abstinence? How likely is it for the average kid to remain abstinent for the next 2 decades of their life?

In hunter-gatherer cultures, people marry as soon as they sexually mature. This is unimaginable in our society. It works for them because kids sexually mature much later with a non-agrarian diet. The problem with modern society is that it creates an unnatural situation, and so our moral ideologies become out of step with our own biology.

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There is another perspective to all of this.  Disagreements over such socio-political issues might not be all that directly related to either what is moral or practical.  Much research has been done on politics and personality.  The first two links are articles I just came across from The New York Times and the last link is to a post of from my Gaia blog in which I cover all of the research and theories.

Op-Ed Columnist: Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal, by Nicholas D. Kristof

Across the Great Divide: Investigating Links Between Personality and Politics, by Patricia Cohen

Politics, Personality, and Character by Me

It makes me wonder what actually motivates people.  Much of our psychological tendencies are based in genetics and some show as early as infancy (look at twins research for very clear evidence of genetic predispositions), but there are many other factors as well.  Here is one factor I mentioned in the comments in the above blog post:

An interesting complexity is the fact that personality correlates to party affiliation but not to party registration.  So, its possible that conformity to social standards of family and community may play a stronger role than does personality. 

How or rather where we’re raised is infinitely important.  My parents were raised in conservative communities and they grew up to be conservative.  However, they went through a slight liberal phase as young parents maybe because they moved to a more liberal community during a transitional period of their life.  This liberal community of my childhood had a strong influence on me and, along with my brothers, I became mostly liberal.  This shows that community may have more influence than family, and I believe I’ve seen research that shows peers are the most influential for kids (rather than what kids are taught and modelled by their parents). 

As examples, I’m a liberal child of conservative parents and  my dad is a conservative child of liberal parents, but my mom is a conservative child of conservative parents.  Personality might predict, though, to what extent one is influenced by other factors such as community and family.  My mom, according to MBTI, is and ISTJ which is one of the most conservative personality types and also the type that is most likely to follow authority (such as parents) without question or rebellion.  So, maybe it isn’t surprising that her views are more in line with her parents.  I’m an INFP which is a personality type that tends to have more of an independent streak than, for instance, an ISTJ.  But also INFPs tend to be more liberal. 

The question, then, is to consider why people end up with particular personality types.  Research has shown that certain traits are inheritable, but not all.  My parents are ISTJ and ENTJ, and so where did my INFP come from since the last two letters representing Introverted Feeling are completely opposite my parents’ shared Extraverted Thinking.  It still may be genetic as my grandmother (my father’s mother) seemed likely to have been an INFP.  On the other hand, one of my brothers has a personality almost exactly like my mom and yet the two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I assume that is where non-genetic influences come in. 

To get down to one specific aspect of personality, Thinking vs Feeling in MBTI is very central to political attitudes.  Thinking types (especially Extraverted Thinking) fit the typical attitude of conservatism in which a principle is held as true no matter what.  Feeling types (especially Introverted Feeling), instead, are more likely to consider the people involved to make a decision.  Basically, its a difference of whether someone believes that people should serve their moral values or else believes their moral values should serve people. 

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This translates to the original example in that a conservative is less likely to change their attitude even when it seems counter to the evidence of how humans actually behave.  To the conservative, we should strive to live up to our ideals (even if it means failing) rather than to lower our ideals.  That is a worthy attitude in certain situations, but problematic in other situations.  An interesting additional definition of conservatism is a common belief that human individuals are limited in their ability to change and so in a sense conservatives are in certain ways more accepting (or rather more expecting) of people failing moral standards.  The fact that kids still have sex and get pregnant even when taught abstinence isn’t an argument against the socially conservative belief in abstinence.  For a conservative, that is besides the point or if anything proves their point.

The ironic thing to me is that teenagers don’t have sex because of moral failing but because biology drives them to do so.  It’s natural for animals to feel an instinct to procreate.  It’s how our species has survived this long and grown so large.  It’s a very effective instinct.  The ironic part of this is that the socially conservative attitude against pre-marital sex is also embedded in human biology.  Conservative beliefs, despite what some conservatives may think, didn’t fall from the lips of God.  Besides biology, there are also socio-cultural factors to no end.  For instance, Spiral Dynamics gives a detailed account of why certain values are held by societies during specific stages of development.  Or, as another example, the generational theory of Strauss and Howe seems to explain why certain values follow cyclical patterns of popularity.

I don’t mean to just pick on conservatives as we’re all equally influenced by factors we have little control over.  It’s the sad fate of being human that civilization evolves quickly and biology evolves slowly.  And it’s a major problem that modern civilization is so far out of sync with human nature… which applies to everyone whether conservative or liberal or whatever.  In this, the conservatives have intuited an element of our dire straights.  They are right in a sense that our human nature fails us in the situation of modernity, but it would be better to understand that it’s modernity rather than human nature that is the problem.  We have to either develop socially to a new stage more in balance with our own nature (and in balance with nature in general) or else eventually destroy ourselves. 

My criticism of conservatism is that their answer is unhelpful to say the least.  Social conservatism, as we know it now, is as mired in modernity as anything else… related to the idea that fundamentalism is a direct result of modernity meaning it isn’t actually a return to pre-modern values.  If looked at closely, the socially conservative ideals such as family values don’t fit the truly traditional values that we as humans held for thousands upon thousands of years prior to civilization (and actually they don’t even fit the traditional values of a few centuries ago).  If we’re going to attempt a revival of traditional values, then we should really take it seriously and revive hunter-gatherer lifestyle which is the only way to support values of the most traditional variety or at the very least return to an agrarian-based society of small villages and close-knit communities (from which America was first born).  The problem with Christianity is that its a religion that arose in an imperialistic society and in an urban setting.  It’s a religion very much of modern civilization.

I’m not dissing civilization, but humanity is now facing probably the largest obstacle it has ever faced.  We are in an unsustainable situation which is potentially an endgame scenario.  Derrick Jensen explains this all very well, but I hope that he is wrong that the only solution is for civilization to end.  Humans are innovative when the stakes are high.   I’m sure we humans will (eventually) give a noble effort in attempting to save ourselves from the predicament we created for ourselves… and we might even succeed to create some new form of society.  If future humans do succeed in not only surviving but thriving to boot, I suspect they’ll look back with bemusement at the idiocy of both liberals and conservatives.

Anyways, disagreements about the sexual proclivities of teenagers is the least of our problems.  I say let them enjoy their youth because they’ll grow up soon enough and realize the mess they’ve inherited.

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In case anyone is further interested in this subject, here is a post I made in this blog a while back:

Political Party, Morality, Personality, Gender

PKD, ACIM, and Burroughs

Philip K. Dick (PKD) had the idea of God as hidden and yet present in the world.  God invades the world and re-creates it, makes real that which lacks fundamental reality.  In light of this, I was thinking of another idea from A Course In Miracles (ACIM) which is that God doesn’t make real or even recognize our false creations.  Supposedly God sees us as we truly are no matter how we see ourselves.  Maybe, in a sense, both are right.  As God’s reality is hidden from us, our reality is hidden from God.  We can make this rationally coherent by proposing the Gnostic view that the divine can simultaneously be fallen and not fallen.  Also, from the Gnostic view, Jesus acts as mediary for he understands our predicament as God cannot.  Jesus, like all of us as separate individuals, is not ultimately real.  But Jesus reflects the light of the real, acts as a remembrance of the real.  If we can recognize that we are the fallen divine, then we can remember that the divine never really fell.

PKD had another idea borrowed from earlier Christians: the Ape of God.  The god of this world mimics the creative powers of the God of heaven, or if you prefer the emanating fullness of the pleroma.  The Ape of God, however, creates falsely.  In terms of ACIM, the Ape of God is the ego.  Even though ACIM posits no evil, ACIM does distinguish between the false and the real which would fit some definitions of evil and good.  Anyways, ACIM is clear that the false use of the creative power serves no useful end whatever terms one wishes to use.  PKD, on the other hand, theorized that the Ape of God may serve a positive purpose, may even be an artifact of the one true God.  Maybe God needs to remain hidden to accomplish his task and so we need to temporarily remain in this dream.  This attitude necessitates faith in God being in control and using that control to a benevolent end.  We will all awaken one day and the sufferings of the dream will be forgotten.  For PKD, that is our hope and consolation.

PKD had a further notion about these two ideas.  The hidden God and the Ape of God both operate in the world, one seemingly good and the other seemingly bad.  PKD felt that the two were inseparable.  The world could be seen as a game with two players, but still the game is being played out by a single God.  William S. Burroughs thought that evil often appeared as good and good as evil.  This is an aspect of the hidden God.  God isn’t where we expect him; or, as PKD stated it, God in the garbage.  Burroughs was more cynical than PKD and saw this world as one to be escaped.  PKD, on the other hand, believed escape was not necessary or maybe even possible.  Accordingly, we may “escape” our delusions and misunderstandings, but we can’t escape the world.  We need not seek out God because God will seek out us.  PKD went so far as to say God can’t be found.  God reveals himself for reasons that are a mystery to us, and God’s hand can’t be forced.

PKD started out much more of a dualist, and Burroughs seems to have remained a dualist.  For Burroughs, the god of this world and the God of the Western Lands are two entirely separate beings.  Burroughs said he always believed in God but, oddly for a writer, not the God of the Word.  He apparently took from Christianity that this world was created from the Word; but since this world didn’t seem good to him, he believed that neither was the God who created it.  Interestingly, PKD was influenced by Burroughs Gnostic thinking.  Both sought God in unlikely places, and PKD was interested in Burroughs cut-up technique.  The idea is that if language is broken up from its normal order, true information can be revealed (God in disorder similar to God in garbage).  So, language could be used to see beyond language as long as one realized that Truth existed beyond the Word.  PKD also sometimes seemed to equate the creative Word as part of the deceptiveness of this created world, but it was a deceptiveness serving a good purpose.  Burroughs, of course, saw no good in it (even though he saw goodness or the potential for goodness in people or at least some people).

The mixing of the seeming good and the seeming evil is the trick of PKD’s maneuvering past dualism.  PKD remained fascinated with dualities but felt they were contained in a larger whole.  PKD had begun to question what he saw as the dualism of Gnosticism, and later in life he questioned Christianity for the same reasons.  He was drawn to the Greek idea of pantheistic monism.  He saw in Greek philosophy a love of symmetry and beauty that he felt lacking in Christianity.  He once had a vision of a world beyond a golden door (i.e., Golden Rectangle).  It was utterly perfect and he saw a young woman within that world.  He somehow knew this woman was Aphrodite and that this world was the Greek otherworld rather than the Christian heaven.  Burroughs believed in the Egyptian idea of an otherworld which I don’t know if it at all resembled PKD’s vision of the Palm Tree Garden.  For certain, there is a clear distinction between Burrough’s vision of a perfect world only attainable in death and PKD’s vision of divine reality existing as part of this world.  The former, to the extent that I understand Burrough’s view, is entirely dualistic in that the worlds of good and evil shall never meet.

So, what conclusion can we come to about dualism?  My sense is that PKD is right that absolute dualism is false, but maybe dualism still portrays something true in our experience.  From PKD’s perspective, it’s necessary that we take the game seriously even though it is only a game.  Dualism, according to PKD, may serve a purpose of purification of the world.  The good needs to remain hidden so that the evil can be more apparent.  If good were to be obvious, then evil would mimic it and we wouldn’t be able to distinguish the two.  God must act as an undercover agent in enemy territory.  God may even forget himself in entering the human realm, but he leaves clues for himself (something like the Hymn of the Pearl).  In a sense, we are all God hidden in the form of the human for the spark of God exists within every person.

The hiddenness of God allows for the subtlety of faith.  Faith must be developed and that is what God encourages in remaining hidden (yet available).  This offers freedom to choose.  God is intimately close to everyone, but every person must choose what he sees.  Even though God can’t be found out through force, by a shift of perception we can open ourselves to the possibility of revelation.  A simple shift is all that is necessary (and an immensely humble patience is also helpful).  This fits in with the idea of willingness in ACIM.  However, unlike ACIM and Burroughs, PKDs evil can serve the purpose of good for the reason that God can and does use everything to his end.  Furthermore, there is nothing to fear because the Second Coming already happened… for those who have eyes to see.

In general, PKD was interested in dualities which is something he probably picked up from his studies of Gnosticism (and Jung).  He had many theories about dualities.  Along with the good and evil issue, he connected the views of a lower and higher world in which he saw this world as the meeting ground for the two.  He thought about this partly as a depth perception in time rather than space, the two worlds being two perspectives that create our perception of reality (the mind itself reflecting this split in reality).  This also relates to his idea of how the Holy Spirit flows backwards in time.  So, the backward flow with the “normal” experience of forward flow creates the present.  I could go on and on with PKD”s philosophizing about dualities, but I’ll only add one further aspect. 

PKD, in line with the Gnostics (and Jung), was very much interested in the duality of male and female and how this corresponds to spiritual truths.  For PKD, this was very personal.  He had a twin sister who died as an infant and this made him obsessed with this sense of a missing part of himself.  He was obsessed with the “dark-haired girl” both in his fiction and in his personal life.  More importantly, he had that vision of the divine feminine which stuck with him.  Burroughs, to the contrary, was more critical of the feminine to the point of being called a misogynist.  Going by an essay he wrote on the matter, I don’t think he was actually a misogynist but simply a pessimist about life in general.  He just had a negative view of life, of embodied existence.  He wasn’t trying to simply blame it all on women.  Still, he certainly wasn’t idealizing the feminine either.  Personally, my experience is more in line with PKD.  I fel a certain connection to the divine feminine.  Understanding the interplay, psychologically and spiritually, between the feminine and the masculine seems important to me.

Let me return to the views about the world of the good, of the true.  Burroughs believed the Western Lands was distant and the path arduous.  PKD believed (as did certain Gnostics, Kabbalists and Christian mystics) that the Kingdom is all around us and even within us, that the Kingdom is right here and now in this world (necessitating dual vision).  I must say both make sense to me in that both speak to that which feels true in my experience.  Oftentimes, the divine does feel infinitely distant and infinitely alien to this world.  God is so far beyond my comprehension that I’m left with nothing useful to say (which doesn’t stop me from trying)).  But I sense the reality of something that, although beyond me, does exist within or at least touches upon my experience and so is intimately close (there is some comfort this at least).  It’s right here, and yet always beyond my grasp.  Like Gnostic Valentinus, I suspect that all believers may be saved in some sense, but still gnosis is very much desirable.  What good does the hope (or even certainty) of being saved do when people are lost in delusion and ideology?  Seeing truly is of utmost importance in this world and such discernment is no easy task.  The kingdom may be all around us, but the trick is to truly understand what this means.  Belief isn’t enough.  We must know… or else we suffer (and cause suffering) in our unknowing. 

To quote PKD from his Exegesis (1978 entry, p. 143, In Pursuit of Valis):

The Valentinian ontological assessment of knowledge is not that it (the Gnosis) leads to salvation or is knowledge about salvation.  But that in the act (event, revelation, experience) of knowing in itself lies salvation.  Because in knowing, there is restoration of man’s lost state, & a reversal of his present state of ignorance.  Upon knowing, man is again what he originally was.

This knowing isn’t a conclusion.  From the conventional sense of reality, it’s an utter paradox (a dualistic view that allows for seemingly contradictory experiences).  We are saved and yet the world remains as it was.  We simply remember what always has been true.  The hidden is glimpsed, but even in its revelation it remains hidden from our intellect.  We can’t really understand it no matter how much we try.  PKD  accepted the failure of the intellect and saw in this very failure a hidden success.  This was part of the paradox.  Seeking God always fails, but only in our failing can we find God.  The seeking is necessary in its own way.

To quote PKD once more from his Exegesis (1979 entry, p. 91, In Pursuit of Valis):

I actually had to develop a love of the disordered & puzzling, viewing reality as a vast riddle to be joyfully tackled, not in fear but with tireless fascination.  What has been most needed is reality testing, & a willingness to face the possibility of self-negating experiences; ie., real contradictions, with something being true and not true.

The enigma is alive, aware of us, & changing.  It is partly created by our own minds; we alter it by perceiving it, since we are not outside it.  As our views shift, it shifts in a sense it is not there at all (acosmism).  In another sense it is a vast intelligence; in another sense it is total harmonia and structure (how logically can it be all three?  Well, it is).

Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

William S. Burroughs had a powerful influence on many writers, two of note being Philip K. Dick and Thomas Ligotti.  PKD wrote about Burroughs in his Exegesis a number of times and he experimented with Burroughs cut-up technique.  Ligotti considered Burroughs to be his last artistic hero, but disliked his cut-up technique.  Burroughs, for me, acts as a middle ground between these two writers and also between the visions of hope and of despair. 

PKD, like Burroughs, was attracted to Gnosticism and saw something fundamentally or at least potentially good in a dark world.  Burroughs cut-up technique fits in with PKD’s belief about God in the gutter, divine truth revealed where one is least likely to look for it.  Both believed that, however difficult, God could be discovered.

Ligotti also started out as a spiritual seeker with his studies and meditation practice, but lost his faith along the way.  Ligotti, like Burroughs, takes very seriously the suffering of the human condition.  Ligotti takes the dark pessimism of Burrough’s to the extreme which he writes about in his Conspiracy Against the Human Race (an excerpt is published in the Collapse journal).  Both present insights that most people would rather not know about.

PKD sought the spiritual and had revelatory visions of what to him felt divinely true.  Ligotti sought the spiritual and yet discovered no truths to be consoled by.  Even though both accept the world is filled with much suffering, the difference is whether one has faith in the face of it.  Can our suffering be placed in a context of meanng?  Or are we simply animals who can’t comprehend the trap we find ourselves in?  Burroughs presents a very challenging view of reality.  PKD and Ligotti represent two very different responses.  So, why this difference?

PKD and Burroughs seem to have been more restless in their seeking than Ligotti (or so this is what I sense from my readings of these authors).  It’s possible that Ligotti is just better medicated.  He speaks about being more restless before his moods were modified with prescriptions, and also said something along the lines that this dulled his creative edge as he no longer had the extreme manic phases to motivate his writing.  PKD, on the other hand, did his best to magnify his manic phases by self-medicating himself with uppers (to the point of mental breakdown.. and maybe divine breakthrough).  Burroughs was also an experimenter with illicit drugs.  It makes me wonder what kind of view Ligotti might’ve come to if like Burroughs and PKD he had spent his whole life destabilizing his psyche.

This is important from another perspective.  For Burroughs and PKD, there instability drove their minds, their seeking, and their writing.  They were restless and had long careers and wrote profusely.  Ligotti has said that he at present doesn’t feel compelled to write.  I don’t mean to romanticize mental illness, but their is some truth to the connection between non-ordinary (including disturbed) states of mind and the creativity of artists.

Another issue is that both Burroughs and PKD were very interested in people and the human experience.  This included spirituality, relationships, and politics.  They were restlessly curious about this world that humans both live in and help to create.  Ligotti, however, wishes to see beyond the human, but realized that as a fiction writer he had no choice but to convey the horror of reality through the experience of the human.  The truly monstrous can’t be conveyed in its own terms whatever that may mean.  The problem is that this sense that one’s humanity is a failing or a limitation possibly doesn’t lead one to a long career as a fiction writer.  Afterall,  fiction is ultimately about human experience which necessitates to a certain extent a desire to sympathize and to understand. 

I appreciate what Ligotti has written as he has a probing intellect and communicates well.  However, some of Ligotti’s fans have said that Ligotti has said all that he could possibly say and has said it as best as he possibly could, and so what more is left for him to do?  Ligotti easily could be argued as a consistently better writer than Burroughs and PKD, but what good does it do if his understanding of the human condition has come to a deadend? 

I’m not saying that Ligotti can’t come to further insight.  However, without the restless seeking that drove Burroughs and PKD, is he likely to feel a desire to seek further insight?  Burroughs and PKD believed there was meaning to be found, but Ligotti dismisses meaning as just another way of avoiding suffering.  Other than the momentum of his identity as a writer, what is to inspire Ligotti to continue his creative career, to continue to share his thoughts and publish them?  Without a sense of purpose, what is the point of writing at all?

Anyways, Burroughs symbolizes the ideal of the person who simultaneously strives to be an artist and a truth seeker.  It takes something like courage (or maybe just a perverse compulsion) to confront suffering, grapple with it, try to understand it, and to convey whatever insight one has gained.  But there is danger in delving so far into the morass of the human condition.  You don’t know what you’ll find… or what you’ll become in the process.

Comment on Freed “Terrorists”

Here is my comment of this NY Times article:

Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees, by Elisabeth Bumiller

Of course, the obvious response is that this is a surprisingly low number. 

If these were actually all dangerous committed terrorists, then I’d expect the majority of them would return to being a terrorist.  It’s surprising that round 84% stop being terrorists.  It makes me wonder that maybe they never were terrorists in the first place. 

A better statistic to know would be how many people who weren’t terrorists before being imprisoned became terrorists after release.  Another useful statistic would be how many Iraqis who supported the US before the occupation became terrorists afterwards.

Other people’s comments:

Why is this surprising? Of course, people committed to a war would rejoin. Look at what our escaped or returned POW’s did during U.S. wars.

— Theron, Racine, WI

Less then the recidivism rate for US convicts being released from prison.

— David, Tn

Well, why would you not…if you had been tortured and treated like a dog? How could that not make you want to fight back? We bred this resistance and created terrorists even where there were none – Remember the rage and fight we all had in us after 9/11? Now multiply that feeling by 1,000 – and perhaps that is getting close to the rage and anger they must feel leaving Guantanamo after their lives, their dignity, their human and legal rights, and sometimes their families were stripped of them?

It is a terrible dilemma now what to do with these men – as I believe this statistic – but at the same time, we can only blame ourselves – and hope and pray that in the future we will maintain more dignity ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher moral standard – to prove them wrong – rather than proving them right – about our being worthy of the fight.

— Jennifer K, Providence, RI

How can you “return” to terrorism if you were never a terrorist in the first place? The people who were released from Guantanamo were never charged, tried or convicted of anything. Why? No evidence they did anything.

— Puzzled, Palm Coast, FL

This is a very misleading headline. And just what constitutes “returning” to terrorism. It is reported elsewhere that some in this count simply appeared in videos or condemned the US during interviews. If the majority counted cannot be verified then the statistic is suspect. You should have reported more honestly. Sounds like you have an axe to grind.

— tarry davis, norfolk, virginia

Really “returned?” That is agreeing with the last admin that they all ARE terrorists. Why not check our if some (or many…) only became militant AFTER what the stay in gtmo did to them…?

— rsb, Switzerland

Unreleased, unsubstantiated and anonymous report from an unnamed agency. Now this is the kind of information that anyone can use to make a rational decision about unproven and not made charges. After these people have been imprisoned and tortured without any due process why would these men become terrorists? Whoa that’s a tough one.

— HR Holmes, Ft Lauderdale

What is the big surprise ? Was someone expecting them to all go home and play scrabble ? This is silly to be talking about. Of course your going to have some of them returning to active military activities. Just deal with it and close Guantanamo Bay anyway. It is a disgrace to the values and principals of America.

— John Hartman, Bristol, Connecticut

Is the Pentagon admitting they released people they knew to be terrorists or dangerous to US troops? Or is the Pentagon saying they released people they didn’t
really know anything about, people who hadn’t been properly vetted before being transferred to Guantanamo and whom they determined, through illegal and flawed interrogations and with very little hard evidence, one way or the other, to be of no significant danger to the United States or our allies?

During and after the attack on Afghanistan by United States forces, a net was cast that caught all sorts of fish – Taliban soldiers and supporters of the Taliban government, ordinary Afghanistan civilians, travelers, humantiarian workers, government officials, members of Al Qaeda, people employed by Al Quada, mercenaries, soldiers and supporters of the Northern Allience, etc. Instead of properly vetting these people and releasing those who weren’t combatants, declaring the remainder to be prisoners of war, they were denied the protections of the Geneva Conventions and transferred to Guantanamo to undergo interrogations. In some cases, these interrogations involved techniques which were cruel, inhumane, abusive and humiliating. Techniques which are notoriously unreliable.

The claim that 1 in 7 released detainees “returned to terrorism” has no merit. Instead of trying to justify, support and continue inept and illegal methods of fighting the so-called “war on terrorism”, the Pentagon should admit that it has made huge mistakes – illegal arbitrary detention, illegal classifications, illegal interrogation practices – and learn from them. Making restitution to those it has wronged and making sure all their policies and actions adhere to the laws of the Geneva Conventions would be a good place to start.

For those still detained, either charge them with crimes and give them fair and impartial trials – “fair and impartial” being defined by international laws and standards – or let them go. If they cannot be released to their prior countries of citizenship or residence due to the danger of being unfairly jailed, tortured or killed, and no other country will take them, they must be released into the United States. That is not to say there cannot be stipulations to those releases, but released they must be. To continue to hold these people indefinitely is a continuation of the United States government’s lawlessness through violations against the Constitution of the United States, US Federal laws and
international laws.

— Mary Ellen Crowley, Waldoboro, ME

Recent statistics on recividism rates in the US: “67.5% of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years, an increase over the 62.5% found for those released in 1983”

Why don’t we just keep everybody in jail forever? That would prevent crime, only, we’d soon run out of enough people on the outside to watch over (and feed/clothe) those on the inside. It’s time to get this debacle behind us. Hurry up and try them, convict them if they’re guilty, and release the innocent who were picked up in mass sweeps. If some of them go back to the fight, so be it. That’s the price we pay for Bush’s folly.

— Tokyo2nite, Japan

My understanding is that this number has been changed by the Pentagon over fifty times. One in seven? How about a little investigation as to why this number is continually changing (for the worse)? I for one would really appreciate that.

— Alvin, Columbia, SC

Isn’t it really time that respectable media outlets define the word “terror” before they parrot the term in ways that are clearly meant to manipulate the masses?

— TJ, Arkansas

If 1 out of 7 is seen as a high enough ratio to warrant the prolonged imprisonment of people without charging them, I have an idea!

Let’s throw every Bush administration official in prison for 4 or 5 years, whether or not we can find anything on them — I’ve got $20 that says at least 1 in 7 violated some law during the past 8 years.

— TJ, Arkansas

Response to jesusblogger: early trinity beliefs

My comment to a post by jesusblogger:

http://jesusblogger.wordpress.com/2009/05/02/did-the-majority-of-christians-believe-in-the-trinity-before-ad-325/

I’m sure my view of Christianity is different than yours, but I appreciate you pointing out this discrepancy between early and later Christian doctrine. And it certainly isn’t the only example. One thing that I found interesting is how later Christians often judged the views of Christians prior to them as heretical. The earliest Christian church held many diverse views including those of Valentinus and Marcion. Then the heresiologists took over the church and declared heretical these early church views of Christianity.

I find it odd that all of the earliest commentators of the New Testament were later banned and burned. For instance, the first NT commentary ever written (by Basilides) was entirely destroyed by other Christians later on and the first commentators of Paul and John were labelled as not being Christian (i.e., Gnostic). The funny thing is that many of the third century Christians who judged heretical the views of some of the first and second century Christians were themselves deemed heretical (in part or whole) by fourth and fifth century Christians.

The heresiologists only came into power a century or more after Jesus and so why should we give them priority over the Christians that actually knew Christianity as it was first forming? This is a very important question considering that scholarship has shown how much the New Testament was altered (intentionally and accidentally) in the centuries after the life of Jesus. What we now consider the canonical New Testament took centuries to form and the idea of a Christian canon was originated by a Gnostic (i.e., Marcion).

It’s difficult uncovering what was original to the earliest Christians, but it’s worth the effort even if it means doubting what has become doctrine in what is called “traditional” Christianity.  What seems obvious to me is that there was no single monolithic view of Jesus from the beginning.  Even accepting the canonical New Testament as it is, there are very important differences between the gospels: differing details (some quite significant), different ideas and words emphasized, etc.  And the differences between the gospel writers and Paul are even more interesting. 

The challenge is that, if the ealiest Christians weren’t even of a single agreement about every issue, how are we to decide what is authentic almost two thousand years later?  If the heresiologists from the second century on were seemingly so misunderstanding of the earlier Christians, then how are we to come to a better understanding now?  It takes immense amounts of study along with soul searching doubts and questions to even begin to grasp an inkling of the common threads to early Christianity.

Suffering… two responses

I was thinking about how my mind works in response to two related things.

I was reading some of Tim Boucher’s writings on his site.  I visit his site every so often partly because he comes up in many web searches as he happens to share many of my same interests: Jung, Philip K. Dick, Ken Wilber, Joseph Campbell, Gnosticism, conspiracy theory, mythology, psychology, etc.  I agree with much of Boucher’s ideas.  In his thinking, he is analytical, imaginative, and curious.  Also, he normally is fairly critical of anything New Agey and I can be similarly critical. 

But then I came across his post What The Hell Happened To Me? which is different than his typical writing.   This was shortly after a period (August 2005 to October 1007) when he had questioned deeply and had a difficult time, and I guess he had come to a new insight.  My response to this post was a combination of surprise and irritation.  In that post, he claims to have overcome suffering which is fine and dandy.  But the damn post sounds like an advertisement for a New Age self-help program.  I sensed no deep insight, no authenticity.  I was disappointed that Boucher had turned to the light side.  I’m not unhappy for his happiness.  I just would hate for someone with  such a great intellect to lose his edge.

My point isn’t to complain about Boucher, but to describe my reaction.  And then compare it to my reaction to something else. 

A couple of weeks ago, a co-worker told me about a girl at a local highschool who killed herself.  My immediate response wasn’t sadness.  I was… what’s the proper word… not quite glad but I did feel something akin to a positive emotion.  Let me explain.

I’ve suffered depression for decades now.  I’ve felt suicidal many times over the years and even attempted once.  I don’t take it lightly, and I doubt the girl did either.  Committing suicide is immensely difficult.  The average successful suicide usually comes after many many attempts.  You have to really want to die which means you have to be really suffering.  It’s true that suffering doesn’t always last.  However, this girl was young… and if she was already suffering this much at this young of an age, then there was a very good chance that life wasn’t going to get easier.

I was “glad” that she escaped a life of potentially great suffering.  Anyone who has experienced long-term severe depression realizes how life can become a personal hell.  Some say suicide is selfish and I say bullshit.  It’s the ultimate act of self-negation.  Nobody wants to die.  A suicidal person simply doesn’t want to suffer and everyone has their breaking point.  Yes, I’m sorry that life was so sad for her and I’m sorry about how her family must feel, but I’m not sorry that her suffering in this world is now at an end.  And if there is an afterlife, I hope it’s much better.

Boucher claims that suffering isn’t a real emotion, that we weren’t sent here to suffer.  Sure, sure.  I’m glad that Boucher’s suffering went away, but it doesn’t always go away for everyone, probably not even for most people… and he shouldn’t feel so sure that suffering will never come back for him.  The position that suffering is unnecessary can be one of the most cruel beliefs because then people just blame themselves.  The fact is that humans suffer.  Sometimes suffering becomes less and sometimes it becomes worse… just like any other experience in life. Boucher has suffered in the past and so he thinks he understands, but he is in no position to judge the suffering of all of mankind.  Many gurus and prophets have denied suffering.  Such people (and their claims) come and go, and yet suffering continues.

Morality: Christians vs. Jesus

AS ALWAYS… I’ve been thinking about Christianity.  My mind often returns to the moral issue because there are many glaring moral failures in Christianity’s history… which are magnified by the radicalness of Jesus’ moral ideals.  But lately I was considering morality in terms of modern Christians.  This is a difficult subject.  I’ve been contemplating what Christianity precisely is.  Over the years, I’ve studied many of the early Christian texts and the scholarship about them, but I still feel rather confused about it all.

CHRISTIANITY?

Christianity doesn’t seem for the most part to be based on Jesus’ teachings.  As far as I can tell, Jesus wasn’t attempting to found a religion, build churches, start a social movement, create a cultural identity, or be the justification for the ideal of a Christian nation.  Going by gospels, I would say he was doing something apparently quite opposite to all of that.  Whatever Christianity (as an organized religious institution) may be, it is not a religion based on Jesus’ life and preaching.

I don’t mean Christians aren’t moral and don’t contribute positively to society.  My point is that Jesus was teaching a specific moral attitude that (if I understand it correctly) few Christians attempt to follow.  I sometimes doubt whether most Christians even understand what is written of Jesus in the New Testament.  Many probably don’t read Jesus’ words carefully and in their entirety.  I also suspect that the average Christian trusts the opinion of authorities over their own interpretive abilities (whether that of church authorities, religious teachers, or apologetic writers).  And certainly it’s a rare Christian who thoroughly studies the complexities of New Testament scholarship (including more secular scholarship such as the Jesus Seminar). 

Jesus preached all kinds of crazy ideas.  He taught people to not carry money but to sell all that they own and give their money to the poor, to leave their families, to let the dead bury themselves, to love their enemies, to challenge authority and not to place oneself as an authority over others, etc.  But Jesus also preached relatively less crazy ideas.  He taught people to treat others as they would like to be treated, to not swear oaths (which is actually quite radical considering our whole political and legal system is based on it), to not worship idols (and I doubt he was hoping himself to be worshipped as an idol), to not pray in public nor in temples (which undermines institutional Christianity), etc.  And Jesus said much else as well.  There are plenty of apparent contradictions to be found for anyone wishing to look.  Which statements are authentic?  Which are the most essential?  How to interpret them and live by them?

CHRISTIANS?

I know a Christian who has argued for torture and for the dropping of nuclear bombs in WWII.  I once told him about prisoners of war who while in custody were killed by soldiers and he thought it was excusable because the soldiers were angry.  WTF!?!  On the other hand, he donates his money and time to worthy causes.  He even has volunteered at soup kitchens.  He considers himself a good Christian and is very active in his church.  He wrote to me recently that the torture issue is just a blip, but I doubt Jesus would consider it a blip.  Heck, a major part of Jesus’ life was his being wrongly tortured.  Jesus told his followers to not meet violence with violence but rather to turn the other cheek.  Jesus was very clear on this particular point and I don’t see any other way to interpret it.

I don’t mean to be harsh on this person in using him as an example.  I think he is a typical Christian and does genuinely try to be a good person as he understands it.  Also, there are reasonable arguments that morally justify such things as torture and atomic bombs.  I understand how fear motivates people to take extreme actions and I understand that sometimes life seems to force us to choose the lesser of evils.  The problem is that these aren’t Christian moral justifications and in fact are clearly anti-Christian.

As I see it, you’re either a Christian or you’re not.  If you don’t want to try to live up to the standards that Jesus set, then don’t try and don’t call yourself Christian.  It’s understandable that people fail to meet such high standards (impossibly high?).  It seems to me that being Christian isn’t easy… or maybe you’re doing it wrong if it seems easy.  As I see it, there is little excuse for someone claiming to be Christian to not try to follow Jesus’ example.  There is even less excuse for them to argue for immoral behavior that completely opposes everything Jesus stood for. 

STANDARDS & VIEWS

Am I being too judgmental?  What is the point of having so high of standards?  Well, I’d answer that it’s not I but Jesus who sets the bar so high.  To be honest, I’m uncertain about what good are Jesus’ teachings especially for the average person in the world today.  But I’m not the one arguing that Jesus’ teachings should be the moral standard of our entire society.  I really can’t see how Jesus teachings could be applicable beyond the level of personal choices.  I’d go so far as to say that the moment someone tries to base upon Jesus’ life any institution or law they’ve already betrayed what Jesus stood for.  Jesus was teaching absolute sacrifice, complete transformation of all that we understand and value.  Jesus wasn’t teaching personal betterment or the upholding of social order.  Jesus for damn sure wasn’t teaching family values.  I find it particularly funny (or exasperating) when a Christian brings up family values.  Jesus said he came to turn family members against each other.  The closest thing that Jesus came to family values probably was when he spoke of divorce, but he considered remarriage adultery and if followed that would create many single parents.

To try to live according to the gospels would be difficult… and I suppose to completely live as such would be nigh impossible.  It would probably demand being an ascetic (homeless, wandering, and poverty-stricken) who dedicates his every action and thought to love and salvation.  Such a person would have to forever put other people before themselves including a willingness to completely trust God in even the most minor of decisions.  I can’t say I would want to try to live such a life, but there are Christians who have genuinely tried to live this way.  I don’t know if they’re better people than the rest of us for their radical lifestyle.  Still, at least they’re being true to what Jesus taught.

I realize there are arguments for why not all Christians need to live this way.  People tend to emphasize certain parts of the New Testament over other parts.  You get a different Jesus if you emphasize the Jewish elements… or if you emphasize the Pauline elements… or if you try to harmonize all of it… or if you look past all of the centuries of interpolation and interpretation.

Different views of “Christianity” became mixed up in the first and second centuries (and arguments have been made for one or the another being the original true Christianity), but that is an issue more complex than I wish to deal with here.   At this point, this whole discussion begins to devolve into doubts about what it even means to be a Christian (and even what Jesus really said and meant).  Nonetheless, despite how little we know of Jesus and early Christians, I still hold to my opinion that few Christians after the (supposed) life of Jesus have come even close to living up to his teachings (or else  the teachings written in his name). 

Maybe that is why the early Catholics struck upon the genius of emphasizing original sin above almost all else.  If we’re all sinners who are incapable of doing good beyond submitting our willpowers to the rule of the Church, then Christians don’t actually have to try to follow Jesus’ example.  We can do horrendous things to each other and we’ll still be forgiven.  Water-boarding and nuclear bombs for everyone until Jesus returns.  Hallelujah!  Praise the Lord!

SWORD OR PEACE?

I find it rather telling that many Christians turn to Jewish scriptures when they want moral certainty, and Jewish scriptures are much more open to violence and punishment.  However, I tend to disagree with the arguments for a Jewish Jesus.  The Jewish scriptures seemed to have been only at best of secondary relevance to Jesus, and in many ways they’re contrary to what many have understood to be a radically new message.  The first New Testament canonwas created (by the Gnostic Marcion) in order to clarify the uniqueness of Jesus message as a religion independent of (and opposing to) the legalism and wordliness of the Jewish scriptures (with Yahweh being the god of this world who keeps his followers in line through reward and punishment).  Jesus moral teachings are quite different in that there aren’t simple answers, and to turn to Jewish scriptures for simple answers is to miss the point.  For example, if Jesus believed in Jewish family values, then he would’ve himself married and had children as was expected of Jewish Rabbis.  Also, his denying his own mother doesn’t exactly demonstrate a pro-family attitude.  With the stated purpose of creating familial conflict, Jesus said that he came to send a sword rather than peace.

There obviously are arguments for Jesus supporting (or at least not always denouncing) violence.  Jesus uses sword imagery quite a bit, and it’s hard to explain why a supposed pacifist would rely so heavily on symbols of violence… although he could be attempting to transform physical objects into spiritual symbols and thus negating their violent meaning.  However, Jesus did at one point tell his followers to sell their robes and buy swords.  In this passage, there is a reference to “two swords” which is what the Judean siccari carried in fighting the Romans.  But later in this same chapter Jesus rejected the use of swords.  Did he change his mind or were his words remembered incorrectly? 

Another interesting passage is where Jesus says to turn the other cheek.  The custom was only to hit with the right hand because the left was reserved for unclean activities.  Also, the custom was to backhand inferiors which meant hitting the left cheek.  To offer your right cheek, would force the attacker to punch or slap which was only done between equals.  More importantly, this would be an invitation to fight back.  So, turning your cheek could simply be a refusal to play the role of the inferior or it could be a challenge to a fight. 

Furthermore, one of the most famous deeds of Jesus is his going on a wild rampage through the temple.  Why would a pacifist act this way?  To give some context, the Roman soldiers that came to arrest Jesus numbered at least 500 and possibly much higher.  Why would such a massive force be needed to arrest a pacifist?

Even if Jesus wasn’t entirely opposed to violence, few modern Christians refer to these passages to rationalize acts of violence… although, going by President Bush’s rhetoric, holy war is still a popular concept.  The Christian guy I mentioned earlier said he thought that the temple incident may not be true because it seems out of character.  The question is out of character from what?  Out of character from our modern expectations of Jesus?  Or out of character with the New Testament in general?  The problem is that many of Jesus’ sayings and deeds can seem out of character when placed next to eachother.  The New Testament is filled with seeming contradictions.  Maybe Jesus character is no different than any other human.  Maybe Jesus was inconsistent and changed his mind like humans are wont to do.  Still, Jesus does overall seem more of a pacifist than not.  And, despite certain unclear passages, Jesus obviously wasn’t the warrior-king messiah that many Jews were hoping for.  It’s for certain, anyways, that many Christians seem to want him to be a pacifist which makes it even odder when those same Christians formulate other arguments for violence.

WHAT BOTHERS ME

Whatever Jesus may or may not have been, I guess what bothers me isn’t so much whether someone feels able or willing to live according to the gospels.  There are at least two elements to what really bothers me.  First, Christians read their scriptures very selectively and tend to give less emphasis to the radical aspects of Jesus.  But this is probably similar to people in all religions.  Second, the compartmentalization of how Christians separate their religion from other parts of their life.  But I’d say this self-division is common to all people in various ways.  So, why should I pick on Christians in particular?  The main reason is because I live in a largely Christian society.  I grew up Christian and surrounded by Christians.  Christianity is what I’ve studied and what I know.  Christians are who I deal with the most.

I understand that many Christians try to be moral… whether or not they’re actually following the teachings of Jesus.  However, does being a Christian simply mean being a generally good person?  If so, how is a Christian any different than anyone else who is generally good?  I sense for most Christians it’s just a cultural identity which isn’t problematic in and of itself, but a cultural identity doesn’t personally inspire me.  The thing is what does it mean to be a good Christian?  If even good Christians kill, torture, and drop atom bombs (and morally justify these), then in what way is Christianity superior?  This is a profound question when one considers how Jesus was tortured and killed and how Christianity spread partly through even worse forms of violence.

So what?  Many Christians are hypocrites and much of Christian history is blatant hypocrisy.  That isn’t a new insight.  What’s the big deal?  This is just the way humans are.  The hypocrisy that bothers me seems to be inherent to the human condition, andChristians are humans afterall.  I’m also human and I don’t lack sympathy for the failings of humanity, but I don’t abide righteousness well.  My beef is that too many Christians have a superior attitude… obviously if they didn’t believe their religion was superior then there wouldn’t be much point in being a Christian (rather than any other arbitrary religious affiliation).  Then again, having a superiority complex is just another common human attribute.  Maybe I’m wrong to expect Christians to live up to their own righteous ideals moreso than anyone else. 

I’m no moral exemplar myself… but the difference between certain Christians and myself is that I don’t seek to morally justify actions that are morally questionable (such as torture).  I realize, from a practical standpoint, there are potentially “moral” reasons for violence used selectively.  Modern people often use a facade of utilitarianism to rationalize otherwise immoral actions.  Utilitarianism is the attempt to seek the greatest good for the greatest numbers, and it’s hard to argue against that in principle.  However, it’s a slippery slopeWith it, justifications can be made to torture someone to prevent them from setting off a nuclear bomb for example.  And, also with it, justifications can be made to drop a nuclear bomb on them pre-emptively. 

The question is whose greater good are we serving?  The greater good of our particular group or the greater good of humanity?  And, from a Christian perspective, doesn’t utilitarianism (when used to trump Jesus’ teachings) come dangerously close to undermining the entire basis of Christianity?  The Christian is commanded to serve the higher good of God and the higher good of loving his fellow man.  If we must do violence to eachother on this planet we share, I’d rather we not pretend that it’s a matter of morality.

A DEEPER ISSUE, AN ESSENTIAL TRUTH

Along with moral hypocrisy, I want to focus on a deeper issue of human nature, the compartmentalization I mentioned above.  I first came to understand this from reading Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words.  Jensen shows how easy it is to become divided within oneself.  This is particularly a problem for modern people.  In the world today, life is splintered into so many factors of society and so many fields of knowledge.  A person learns about one thing in school and another thing at church.  A person knows one set of people at work and another set of people at church.  People make decisions that affect others who they’ve never met and who they know nothing about.  Soldiers go to far off lands and kill strangers because another stranger in a position of authority told them to do so.  The challenge of morality is that humans aren’t designed to deal with the complexities of this global society.  Torture, killing, and nuclear bombs are unreal abstractions until they happen to you or to someone you love.  The human moral sense is unable to deal with anything outside of our immediate sphere of experience. 

Jensen uses many examples, but one is particularly relevant here.  He extensively refers to the Nazis and in one instance he writes of Nazi doctors.  There were doctors whose job was to kill people which of course included children.  Some of these doctors had families they returned to every night.  How could they inject a child with poison and then hours later play with their own children?  Psychological research shows that people have immense ability to separate different parts of our lives.  When at home, the dead children simply didn’t exist in the doctor’s mind.  Furthermore, everyone has their rationalizations.  Some of the doctors, if I remember correctly, believed they were actually helping the people they killed… which would’ve been difficult to sustain if their own children ever ended up in one of the death camps… but, as long as the two worlds could remain separate, the illusion continued.

This psychological ability to compartmentalize does have evolutionary advantages.  We identify with our group, our close relationships… and the stranger, the enemy become something less.  This tribal instinct has served man well, but religions during the Axial Age (such as Christianity) called us to a higher aspiration.  The prophets and teachers of that time spoke of caring as much about a stranger as we do about ourselves.  Afterall, we are all strangers to someone until we get to know them.  And it’s been said that behind each stranger’s face is God.  To put it bluntly, the man alone in a prison being tortured by those who know not what they do is the same as Jesus on the cross.  No one deserves torture, and anyone who tortures another forsakes whatever is good in their heart.  As Jesus says, “What you do to the least of these, you do unto me.”

That quote of Jesus captures the essence of how many people think of Jesus.  I was talking to another person about these various issues.  I was explaining about the complexities of Jesus’ message… and lamenting about difficulty of understanding.  He argued that there is an essential truth and that the details are less important.  The idea is that, although Jesus made specific statements, they were applicable to specific people in specific situations.  Nonetheless, the message behind the words still speaks to us so many centuries later.  The problem with this is that Christians have come to different conclusions about the essential truth.  I wonder if it’s when all of the details aren’t considered fully that Christians end up rationalizing actions that don’t seem very Christian.  Then again, all of the details don’t add up to a clear message either.

Part of the confusion is that the Bible is such a mix of texts written at different times by different people.  There are at least three possible solutions to articulating a clear message:

  1. The orthodox Christians attempt to harmonize, but that just adds further problems.  Ultimately, there can be no honest harmonization between all of the contradictory details and divergent agendas.  Harmonization falls apart if you look at it too closely.  Even so, this technique has been powerfully used when filtered through centuries of orthodox interpretations and upheld by the persuasive might of Church authority.
  2. I’m more attracted to an understanding like that of Marcion  I’ve thought for a long time that there is a marked distinction between Jewish and Christian scriptures.  It’s true that Jewish ideas formed a background to early Christianity, but Christian scriptures range way beyond orthodox Jewish tradition.  Plus, I’m convinced that the main components of Christian theology and mythology have very little to do with Judaism beyond the fact that some Jews were also influenced by the same cultural milieu.  Marcion definitely understand the radicalness of Jesus’ message like few others.  Love doesn’t merely complete the law.  The God of love is entirely separate from the god of the law.
  3. Like Marcion, another early Christian who left Catholicism was Valentinus.  In some ways, Valentinus was more moderate in that he was seeking to bridge the differences between orthodoxy and Gnosticism… not that the differences were necessarily that great at the time.  On the other hand, the Gnostic vision at the heart of the Valentinian tradition is quite radical.  But even so Valentinus realized that simple faith is still good for those who lack an experience of gnosis.

CONTENTMENT AND OTHERWISE

Anyways, most Christians go for the first solution.  That is fair enough as most people aren’t looking for radical answers from their religion.  Traditionally, religion is an institution of the status quo in that it helps to promote and sustain social order.  I was thinking of someone I know who reminds me of my own mother… the stereotypical good Christian.  This woman spent her life in a helping profession.  She always has played the role of loyal wife and caring mother.  She is a simple person who has spent her life being responsible and hardworking.  She attends church regularly and she volunteers.  She is “good” in a very socially acceptable way and she seems quite content in being good.  But is contentment the same as moral goodness?  Is it inherently good to submit to a duty-bound life (i.e., the ideal of Kiersey’s SJ Temperament)?  As I see it, people like this live according to their personalities.  And this is true for everyone… but are certain personalities morally superior? 

Should we all strive to be like this?  What if someone doesn’t feel capable of being like this (such as, to pick a random example, an INFP)?  What about a person who isn’t so easily contented or who is even outright dissatisfied (such as, to pick another random example, a depressed person)?  Jesus certainly didn’t seem like a contented soul who did what was expected of him.  And neither am I of the contented variety.  The rub of the matter is that those of a discontented nature are generally not looked upon kindly by the keepers of the status quo.  If the discontented cause enough problems, they may even come to a bad end… such as being crucified… or, the equivalent in the modern world, being imprisoned/institutionalized.

This is a very personal matter for me.  I was raised with parents who lived as basically good people.  And this sense of basic goodness was instilled in me.  The difficulty for me is that I have an idealistic nature and I’ve never been contented with basic goodness.  I read A Course In Miraclesin highschool.  From this, I learned of Jesus’ radical message of love(which more or less fits in with the Valentinian tradition).  I don’t know if the Gnostics were right about the transformative power of gnosis, but I’d like to believe they were right.  I’ve read of stories of various mystics who were transformed by divine visions and dark nights of the soul, and I’m still waiting for God to reach down and bop me on the head with his magic wand.  I have had a number of visions in my life that felt quite spiritual and yet I remain untransformed.  I feel as if I’m in an endless dark night of the soul… sometimes minus the soul.  Basically, it sucks being depressed.  I wish I were able to be one of those simple good people.  I’ve tried to be that before, but it just ain’t me.  Instead, I simultaneously feel envious and critical of all of the “good” Christians in the world. 

It just seems unfair that some people can go through life feeling certain in their beliefs while others are doomed to eternal doubt.  I’m a bit biased but I’m of the opinion that the world could use more doubt.  If people more strongly doubted their own righteous convictions, then there would probably be less righteous violence in the world.  Going by my own experience and observations, there appears to be a link between suffering and compassion.  People only seem to have compassion to the degree they’ve personally suffered… not that suffering in and of itself guarantees development of compassion.

IN CONCLUSION…

I just don’t know.  I hereby confess my ignorance.  Maybe all my complaining and analysis comes to nothing.  Most likely I’m just a depressed person who thinks too much.  Oh well…