Moralizing Gods as Effect, Not Cause

There is a new study on moralizing gods and social complexity, specifically as populations grow large. The authors are critical of the Axial Age theory: “Although our results do not support the view that moralizing gods were necessary for the rise of complex societies, they also do not support a leading alternative hypothesis that moralizing gods only emerged as a byproduct of a sudden increase in affluence during a first millennium ‘Axial Age’. Instead, in three of our regions (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia), moralizing gods appeared before 1500.”

I don’t take this criticism as too significant, since it is mostly an issue of dating. Objectively, there are no such things as distinct historical periods. Sure, you’ll find precursors of the Axial Age in the late Bronze Age. Then again, you’ll find precursors of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation in the Axial Age. And you’ll find the precursors of the Enlightenment in the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. It turns out all of history is continuous. No big shocker there. Changes build up slowly, until they hit a breaking point. It’s that breaking point, often when it becomes widespread, that gets designated as the new historical period. But the dividing line from one era to the next is always somewhat arbitrary.

This is important to keep in mind. And it does have more than slight relevance. This reframing of what has been called the Axial Age accords perfectly with Julian Jaynes’ theories on the ending of the bicameral mind and the rise of egoic consciousness, along with the rise of the egoic gods with their jealousies, vengeance, and so forth. A half century ago, Jaynes was noting that aspects of moralizing social orders were appearing in the late Bronze Age and he speculated that it had to do with increasing complexity that set those societies up for collapse.

Religion itself, as a formal distinct institution with standardized practices, didn’t exist until well into the Axial Age. Before that, rituals and spiritual/supernatural experience were apparently inseparable from everyday life, as the archaic self was inseparable from the communal sense of the world. Religion as we now know it is what replaced that prior way of being in relationship to ‘gods’, but it wasn’t only a different sense of the divine for the texts refer to early people hearing the voices of spirits, godmen, dead kings, and ancestors. Religion was only necessary, according to Jaynes, when the voices went silent (i.e., when they were no longer heard externally because a singular voice had become internalized). The pre-religious mentality is what Jaynes called the bicameral mind and it represents the earliest and largest portion of civilization, maybe lasting for millennia upon millennia going back to the first city-states.

The pressures on the bicameral mind began to stress the social order beyond what could be managed. Those late Bronze Age civilizations had barely begun to adapt to that complexity and weren’t successful. Only Egypt was left standing and, in its sudden isolation amidst a world of wreckage and refugees, it too was transformed. We speak of the Axial Age in the context of a later date because it took many centuries for empires to be rebuilt around moralizing religions (and other totalizing systems and often totalitarian institutions; e.g., large centralized governments with rigid hierarchies). The archaic civilizations had to be mostly razed to the ground before something else could more fully take their place.

There is something else to understand. To have moralizing big gods to maintain social order, what is required is introspectable subjectivity (i.e., an individual to be controlled by morality). That is to say you need a narratizing inner space where a conscience can operate in the voicing of morality tales and the imagining of narratized scenarios such as considering alternate possible future actions, paths, and consequences. This is what Jaynes was arguing and it wasn’t vague speculation, as he was working with the best evidence he could accrue. Building on Jaynes work with language, Brian J. McVeigh has analyzed early texts to determine how often mind-words were found. Going by language use during the late Bronze Age, there was an increased focus on psychological ways of speaking. Prior to that, morality as such wasn’t necessary, no more than were written laws, court systems, police forces, and standing armies — all of which appeared rather late in civilization.

What creates the introspectable subjectivity of the egoic self, i.e., Jaynesian ‘consciousness’? Jaynes suggests that writing was a prerequisite and it needed to be advanced beyond the stage of simple record-keeping. A literary canon likely developed first to prime the mind for a particular form of narratizing. The authors of the paper do note that written language generally came first:

“This megasociety threshold does not seem to correspond to the point at which societies develop writing, which might have suggested that moralizing gods were present earlier but were not preserved archaeologically. Although we cannot rule out this possibility, the fact that written records preceded the development of moralizing gods in 9 out of the 12 regions analysed (by an average period of 400 years; Supplementary Table 2)—combined with the fact that evidence for moralizing gods is lacking in the majority of non-literate societies — suggests that such beliefs were not widespread before the invention of writing. The few small-scale societies that did display precolonial evidence of moralizing gods came from regions that had previously been used to support the claim that moralizing gods contributed to the rise of social complexity (Austronesia and Iceland), which suggests that such regions are the exception rather than the rule.”

As for the exceptions, it’s possible they were influenced by the moralizing religions of societies they came in contact with. Scandinavians, long before they developed complex societies with large concentrated populations, they were traveling and trading all over Eurasia, the Levant, and into North Africa. This was happening in the Bronze Age, during the period of rising big gods and moralizing religion: “The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the [Nordic] women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.” (Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker). It would be best to not fall prey to notions of untouched primitives.

We can’t assume that these exceptions were actually exceptional, in supposedly being isolated examples contrary to the larger pattern. Even hunter-gatherers have been heavily shaped by the millennia of civilizations that surrounded them. Occasionally finding moralizing religions among simpler and smaller societies is no more remarkable than finding metal axes and t-shirts among tribal people today. All societies respond to changing conditions and adapt as necessary to survive. The appearance of moralizing religions and the empires that went with them transformed the world far beyond the borders of any given society, not that borders were all that defined back then anyway. The large-scale consequences spread across the earth these past three millennia, a tidal wave hitting some places sooner than others but in the end none remain untouched. We are all now under the watchful eye of big gods or else their secularized equivalent, big brother of the surveillance state.

* * *

Moralizing gods appear after, not before, the rise of social complexity, new research suggests
by Redazione Redazione

Professor Whitehouse said: ‘The original function of moralizing gods in world history may have been to hold together large but rather fragile, ethnically diverse societies. It raises the question as to how some of those functions could still be performed in today’s increasingly secular societies – and what the costs might be if they can’t. Even if world history cannot tell us how to live our lives, it could provide a more reliable way of estimating the probabilities of different futures.’

When Ancient Societies Hit a Million People, Vengeful Gods Appeared
by Charles Q. Choi

“For we know Him who said, ‘And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.'” Ezekiel 25:17.

The God depicted in the Old Testament may sometimes seem wrathful. And in that, he’s not alone; supernatural forces that punish evil play a central role in many modern religions.

But which came first: complex societies or the belief in a punishing god? […]

The researchers found that belief in moralizing gods usually followed increases in social complexity, generally appearing after the emergence of civilizations with populations of more than about 1 million people.

“It was particularly striking how consistent it was [that] this phenomenon emerged at the million-person level,” Savage said. “First, you get big societies, and these beliefs then come.”

All in all, “our research suggests that religion is playing a functional role throughout world history, helping stabilize societies and people cooperate overall,” Savage said. “In really small societies, like very small groups of hunter-gatherers, everyone knows everyone else, and everyone’s keeping an eye on everyone else to make sure they’re behaving well. Bigger societies are more anonymous, so you might not know who to trust.”

At those sizes, you see the rise of beliefs in an all-powerful, supernatural person watching and keeping things under control, Savage added.

Complex societies gave birth to big gods, not the other way around: study
from Complexity Science Hub Vienna

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Seshat director and co-author Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna. Factors such as agriculture, warfare, or religion have been proposed as main driving forces.

One prominent theory, the big or moralizing gods hypothesis, assumes that religious beliefs were key. According to this theory, people are more likely to cooperate fairly if they believe in gods who will punish them if they don’t. “To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.” Even more so, standardized rituals tended on average to appear hundreds of years before gods who cared about human morality.

Such rituals create a collective identity and feelings of belonging that act as social glue, making people to behave more cooperatively. “Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs,” says Harvey Whitehouse.

Society Creates God, God Does Not Create Society
by  Razib Khan

What’s striking is how soon moralizing gods shows up after the spike in social complexity.

In the ancient world, early Christian writers explicitly asserted that it was not a coincidence that their savior arrived with the rise of the Roman Empire. They contended that a universal religion, Christianity, required a universal empire, Rome. There are two ways you can look at this. First, that the causal arrow is such that social complexity leads to moralizing gods, and that’s that. The former is a necessary condition for the latter. Second, one could suggest that moralizing gods are a cultural adaptation to large complex societies, one of many, that dampen instability and allow for the persistence of those societies. That is, social complexity leads to moralistic gods, who maintain and sustain social complexity. To be frank, I suspect the answer will be closer to the second. But we’ll see.

Another result that was not anticipated I suspect is that ritual religion emerged before moralizing gods. In other words, instead of “Big Gods,” it might be “Big Rules.” With hindsight, I don’t think this is coincidental since cohesive generalizable rules are probably essential for social complexity and winning in inter-group competition. It’s not a surprise that legal codes emerge first in Mesopotamia, where you had the world’s first anonymous urban societies. And rituals lend themselves to mass social movements in public to bind groups. I think it will turn out that moralizing gods were grafted on top of these general rulesets, which allow for coordination, cooperation, and cohesion, so as to increase their import and solidify their necessity due to the connection with supernatural agents, which personalize the sets of rules from on high.

Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history
by Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Patrick E. Savage, Thomas E. Currie, Kevin C. Feeney, Enrico Cioni, Rosalind Purcell, Robert M. Ross, Jennifer Larson, John Baines, Barend ter Haar, Alan Covey, and Peter Turchin

The origins of religion and of complex societies represent evolutionary puzzles1–8. The ‘moralizing gods’ hypothesis offers a solution to both puzzles by proposing that belief in morally concerned supernatural agents culturally evolved to facilitate cooperation among strangers in large-scale societies9–13. Although previous research has suggested an association between the presence of moralizing gods and social complexity3,6,7,9–18, the relationship between the two is disputed9–13,19–24, and attempts to establish causality have been hampered by limitations in the availability of detailed global longitudinal data. To overcome these limitations, here we systematically coded records from 414societies that span the past 10,000years from 30regions around the world, using 51measures of social complexity and 4measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. Contrary to previous predictions9,12,16,18, powerful moralizing ‘big gods’ and prosocial supernatural punishment tend to appear only after the emergence of ‘megasocieties’ with populations of more than around one million people. Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations25,26 generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.



The Mind in the Body

“[In the Old Testament], human faculties and bodily organs enjoy a measure of independence that is simply difficult to grasp today without dismissing it as merely poetic speech or, even worse, ‘primitive thinking.’ […] In short, the biblical character presents itself to us more as parts than as a whole”
(Robert A. Di Vito, “Old Testament Anthropology and the Construction of Personal Identity”, p. 227-228)

The Axial Age was a transitional stage following the collapse of the Bronze Age Civilizations. And in that transition, new mindsets mixed with old, what came before trying to contain the rupture and what was forming not yet fully born. Writing, texts, and laws were replacing voices gone quiet and silent. Ancient forms of authorization no longer were as viscerally real and psychologically compelling. But the transition period was long and slow, and in many ways continues to this day (e.g., authoritarianism as vestigial bicameralism).

One aspect was the changing experience of identity, as experienced within the body and the world. But let me take it a step back. In hunter-gatherer societies, there is the common attribute of animism where the world is alive with voices and along with this the sense of identity that, involving sensory immersion not limited to the body, extends into the surrounding environment. The bicameral mind seems to have been a reworking of this mentality for the emerging agricultural villages and city-states. Instead of body as part of the natural environment, there was the body politic with the community as a coherent whole, a living organism. Without a metaphorical framing of inside and outside as the crux of identity as would later develop, self and other was defined by permeable collectivism rather than rigid individualism (bundle theory of mind taken to the extreme of bundle theory of society).

In the late Bronze Age, large and expansive theocratic hierarchies formed. Writing increasingly took a greater role. All of this combined to make the bicameral order precarious. The act of writing and reading texts was still integrated with voice-hearing traditions, a text being the literal ‘word’ of a god, spirit, or ancestor. But the voices being written down began the process of creating psychological distance, the text itself beginning to take onto itself authority. This became a competing metaphorical framing, that of truth and reality as text.

This transformed the perception of the body. The voices became harder to decipher. Hearing a voice of authority speak to you required little interpretation, but a text emphasizes the need for interpretation. Reading became a way of thinking about the world and about one’s way of being in the world. Divination and similar practices was the attempt to read the world. Clouds or lightning, the flight of birds or the organs of a sacrificial animal — these were texts to be read.

Likewise, the body became a repository of voices, although initially not quite a unitary whole. Different aspects of self and spirits, different energies and forces were located and contained in various organs and body parts — to the extent that they had minds of their own, a potentially distressing condition and sometimes interpreted as possession. As the bicameral community was a body politic, the post-bicameral body initiated the internalization of community. But this body as community didn’t at first have a clear egoic ruler — the need for this growing stronger as external authorization further weakened. Eventually, it became necessary to locate the ruling self in a particular place within, such as the heart or throat or head. This was a forceful suppression of the many voices and hence a disallowing of the perception of self as community. The narrative of individuality began to be told.

Even today, we go on looking for a voice in some particular location. Noam Chomsky’s theory of a language organ is an example of this. We struggle for authorization within consciousness, as the ancient grounding of authorization in the world and in community has been lost, cast into the shadows.

Still, dissociation having taken hold, the voices never disappear and they continue to demand being heard, if only as symptoms of physical and psychological disease. Or else we let the thousand voices of media to tell us how to think and what to do. Ultimately, trying to contain authorization within us is impossible and so authorization spills back out into the world, the return of the repressed. Our sense of individualism is much more of a superficial rationalization than we’d like to admit. The social nature of our humanity can’t be denied.

As with post-bicameral humanity, we are still trying to navigate this complex and confounding social reality. Maybe that is why Axial Age religions, in first articulating the dilemma of conscious individuality, remain compelling in what was taught. The Axial Age prophets gave voice to our own ambivalance and maybe that is what gives the ego such power over us. We moderns haven’t become disconnected and dissociated merely because of some recent affliction — such a state of mind is what we inherited, as the foundation of our civilization.

* * *

“Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.” (Matthew 6:2-4)

“Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.” (Matthew 18:8-9)

The Prince of Medicine
by Susan P. Mattern
pp. 232-233

He mentions speaking with many women who described themselves as “hysterical,” that is, having an illness caused, as they believed, by a condition of the uterus (hystera in Greek) whose symptoms varied from muscle contractions to lethargy to nearly complete asphyxia (Loc. Affect. 6.5, 8.414K). Galen, very aware of Herophilus’s discovery of the broad ligaments anchoring the uterus to the pelvis, denied that the uterus wandered around the body like an animal wreaking havoc (the Hippocratics imagined a very actively mobile womb). But the uterus could, in his view, become withdrawn in some direction or inflamed; and in one passage he recommends the ancient practice of fumigating the vagina with sweet-smelling odors to attract the uterus, endowed in this view with senses and desires of its own, to its proper place; this technique is described in the Hippocratic Corpus but also evokes folk or shamanistic medicine.

“Between the Dream and Reality”:
Divination in the Novels of Cormac McCarthy

by Robert A. Kottage
pp. 50-52

A definition of haruspicy is in order. Known to the ancient Romans as the Etrusca disciplina or “Etruscan art” (P.B. Ellis 221), haruspicy originally included all three types of divination practiced by the Etruscan hierophant: interpretation of fulgura (lightnings), of monstra (birth defects and unusual meteorological occurrences), and of exta (internal organs) (Hammond). ”Of these, the practice still commonly associated with the term is the examination of organs, as evidenced by its OED definition: “The practice or function of a haruspex; divination by inspection of the entrails of victims” (“haruspicy”).”A detailed science of liver divination developed in the ancient world, and instructional bronze liver models formed by the Etruscans—as well as those made by their predecessors the Hittites and Babylonians—have survived (Hammond). ”Any unusual features were noted and interpreted by those trained in the esoteric art: “Significant for the exta were the size, shape, colour, and markings of the vital organs, especially the livers and gall bladders of sheep, changes in which were believed by many races to arise supernaturally… and to be susceptible of interpretation by established rules”(Hammond). Julian Jaynes, in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, comments on the unique quality of haruspicy as a form of divination, arriving as it did at the dawn of written language: “Extispicy [divining through exta] differs from other methods in that the metaphrand is explicitly not the speech or actions of the gods, but their writing. The baru [Babylonian priest] first addressed the gods… with requests that they ‘write’ their message upon the entrails of the animal” (Jaynes 243). Jaynes also remarks that organs found to contain messages of import would sometimes be sent to kings, like letters from the gods (Jaynes 244). Primitive man sought (and found) meaning everywhere.

The logic behind the belief was simple: the whole universe is a single, harmonious organism, with the thoughts and intensions of the intangible gods reflected in the tangible world. For those illiterate to such portents, a lightning bolt or the birth of a hermaphrodite would have been untranslatable; but for those with proper training, the cosmos were as alive with signs as any language:

The Babylonia s believed that the decisions of their gods, like those of their kings, were arbitrary, but that mankind could at least guess their will. Any event on earth, even a trivial one, could reflect or foreshadow the intentions of the gods because the universe is a living organism, a whole, and what happens in one part of it might be caused by a happening in some distant part. Here we see a germ of the theory of cosmic sympathy formulated by Posidonius. (Luck 230)

This view of the capricious gods behaving like human king is reminiscent of the evil archons of gnosticism; however, unlike gnosticism, the notion of cosmic sympathy implies an illuminated and vastly “readable” world, even in the darkness of matter. The Greeks viewed pneuma as “the substance that penetrates and unifies all things. In fact, this tension holds bodies together, and every coherent thing would collapse without it” (Lawrence)—a notion that diverges from the gnostic idea of pneuma as spiritual light temporarily trapped in the pall of physicality.

Proper vision, then, is central to all the offices of the haruspex. The world cooperates with the seer by being illuminated, readable.

p. 160

Jaynes establishes the important distinction between the modern notion of chance commonly associated with coin flipping and the attitude of the ancient Mesopotamians toward sortilege:

We are so used to the huge variety of games of chance, of throwing dice, roulette wheels, etc., all of them vestiges of this ancient practice of divination by lots, that we find it difficult to really appreciate the significance of this practice historically. It is a help here to realize that there was no concept of chance whatever until very recent times…. [B]ecause there was no chance, the result had to be caused by the gods whose intentions were being divined. (Jaynes 240)

In a world devoid of luck, proper divination is simply a matter of decoding the signs—bad readings are never the fault of the gods, but can only stem from the reader.

The Consciousness of John’s Gospel
A Prolegomenon to a Jaynesian-Jamesonian Approach

by Jonathan Bernier

When reading the prologue’s historical passages, one notes a central theme: the Baptist witnesses to the light coming into the world. Put otherwise, the historical witnesses to the cosmological. This, I suggest, can be understood as an example of what Jaynes (1976: 317–338) calls ‘the quest for authorization.’ As the bicameral mind broke down, as exteriorised thought ascribed to other-worldly agents gave way to interiorised thought ascribed to oneself, as the voices of the gods spoke less frequently, people sought out new means, extrinsic to themselves, by which to authorise belief and practice; they quite literally did not trust themselves. They turned to oracles and prophets, to auguries and haruspices, to ecstatics and ecstasy. Proclamatory prophecy of the sort practiced by John the Baptist should be understood in terms of the bicameral mind: the Lord God of Israel, external to the Baptist, issued imperatives to the Baptist, and then the Baptist, external to his audience, relayed those divine imperatives to his listeners. Those who chose to follow the Baptist’s imperatives operated according to the logic of the bicameral mind, as described by Jaynes (1976: 84–99): the divine voice speaks, therefore I act. That voice just happens now to be mediated through the prophet, and not apprehended directly in the way that the bicameral mind apprehended the voices and visions. The Baptist as witness to God’s words and Word is the Baptist as bicameral vestige.

By way of contrast, the Word-become-flesh can be articulated in terms of the bicameral mind giving way to consciousness. The Jesus of the prologue represents the apogee of interiorised consciousness: the Word is not just inside him, but he in fact is the Word. 1:17 draws attention to an implication consequent to this indwelling of the Word: with the divine Word – and thus also the divine words – dwelling fully within oneself, what need is there for that set of exteriorised thoughts known as the Mosaic Law? […]

[O]ne notes Jaynes’ (1976: 301, 318) suggestion that the Mosaic Law represents a sort of half-way house between bicameral exteriority and conscious interiority: no longer able to hear the voices, the ancient Israelites sought external authorisation in the written word; eventually, however, as the Jewish people became increasingly acclimated to conscious interiority, they became increasingly ambivalent towards the need for and role of such exteriorised authorisation. Jaynes (1976: 318) highlights Jesus’ place in this emerging ambivalence; however, in 1:17 it is not so much that exteriorised authorisation is displaced by interiorised consciousness but that Torah as exteriorised authority is replaced by Jesus as exteriorised authority. Jesus, the fully conscious Word-made-flesh, might displace the Law, but it is not altogether clear that he offers his followers a full turn towards interiorised consciousness; one might, rather, read 1:17 as a bicameral attempt to re-contain the cognition revolution of which Jaynes considers Jesus to be a flag-bearer.

The Discovery of the Mind
by Bruno Snell
pp. 6-8

We find it difficult to conceive of a mentality which made no provision for the body as such. Among the early expressions designating what was later rendered as soma or ‘body’, only the plurals γυα, μλεα, etc. refer to the physical nature of the body; for chros is merely the limit of the body, and demas represents the frame, the structure, and occurs only in the accusative of specification. As it is, early Greek art actually corroborates our impression that the physical body of man was comprehended, not as a unit but as an aggregate. Not until the classical art of the fifth century do we find attempts to depict the body as an organic unit whose parts are mutually correlated. In the preceding period the body is a mere construct of independent parts variously put together.6 It must not be thought, however, that the pictures of human beings from the time of Homer are like the primitive drawings to which our children have accustomed us, though they too simply add limb to limb.

Our children usually represent the human shape as shown in fig. i, whereas fig. 2 reproduces the Greek concept as found on the vases of the geometric period. Our children first draw a body as the central and most important part of their design; then they add the head, the arms and the legs. The geometric figures, on the other hand, lack this central part; they are nothing but μλεα κα γυα, i.e. limbs with strong muscles, separated from each other by means of exaggerated joints. This difference is of course partially dependent upon the clothes they wore, but even after we have made due allowance for this the fact remains that the Greeks of this early period seem to have seen in a strangely ‘articulated’ way. In their eyes the individual limbs are clearly distinguished from each other, and the joints are, for the sake of emphasis, presented as extraordinarily thin, while the fleshy parts are made to bulge just as unrealistically. The early Greek drawing seeks to demonstrate the agility of the human figure, the drawing of the modern child its compactness and unity.

Thus the early Greeks did not, either in their language or in the visual arts, grasp the body as a unit. The phenomenon is the same as with the verbs denoting sight; in the latter, the activity is at first understood in terms of its conspicuous modes, of the various attitudes and sentiments connected with it, and it is a long time before speech begins to address itself to the essential function of this activity. It seems, then, as if language aims progressively to express the essence of an act, but is at first unable to comprehend it because it is a function, and as such neither tangibly apparent nor associated with certain unambiguous emotions. As soon, however, as it is recognized and has received a name, it has come into existence, and the knowledge of its existence quickly becomes common property. Concerning the body, the chain of events may have been somewhat like this: in the early period a speaker, when faced by another person, was apparently satisfied to call out his name: this is Achilles, or to say: this is a man. As a next step, the most conspicuous elements of his appearance are described, namely his limbs as existing side by side; their functional correlation is not apprehended in its full importance until somewhat later. True enough, the function is a concrete fact, but its objective existence does not manifest itself so clearly as the presence of the individual corporeal limbs, and its prior significance escapes even the owner of the limbs himself. With the discovery of this hidden unity, of course, it is at once appreciated as an immediate and self-explanatory truth.

This objective truth, it must be admitted, does not exist for man until it is seen and known and designated by a word; until, thereby, it has become an object of thought. Of course the Homeric man had a body exactly like the later Greeks, but he did not know it qua body, but merely as the sum total of his limbs. This is another way of saying that the Homeric Greeks did not yet have a body in the modern sense of the word; body, soma, is a later interpretation of what was originally comprehended as μλη or γυα, i.e. as limbs. Again and again Homer speaks of fleet legs, of knees in speedy motion, of sinewy arms; it is in these limbs, immediately evident as they are to his eyes, that he locates the secret of life.7

Hebrew and Buddhist Selves:
A Constructive Postmodern Study

by Nicholas F. Gier

Finally, at least two biblical scholars–in response to the question “What good is this pre-modern self?”–have suggested that the Hebrew view (we add the Buddhist and the Chinese) can be used to counter balance the dysfunctional elements of modern selfhood. Both Robert Di Vito and Jacqueline Lapsley have called this move “postmodern,” based, as they contend, on the concept of intersubjectivity.[3] In his interpretation of Charles S. Peirce as a constructive postmodern thinker, Peter Ochs observes that Peirce reaffirms the Hebraic view that relationality is knowledge at its most basic level.  As Ochs states: “Peirce did not read Hebrew, but the ancient Israelite term for ‘knowledge’–yidiah–may convey Peirce’s claim better than any term he used.  For the biblical authors, ‘to know’ is ‘to have intercourse with’–with the world, with one’s spouse, with God.”[4]

The view that the self is self-sufficient and self-contained is a seductive abstraction that contradicts the very facts of our interdependent existence.  Modern social atomism was most likely the result of modeling the self on an immutable transcendent deity (more Greek than biblical) and/or the inert isolated atom of modern science. […]

It is surprising to discover that the Buddhist skandhas are more mental in character, while the Hebrew self is more material in very concrete ways.  For example, the Psalmist says that “all my inner parts (=heart-mind) bless God’s holy name” (103.1); his kidneys (=conscience) chastise him (16.7); and broken bones rejoice (16:7).  Hebrew bones offer us the most dramatic example of a view of human essence most contrary to Christian theology.  One’s essential core is not immaterial and invisible; rather, it is one’s bones, the most enduring remnant of a person’s being.  When the nepeš “rejoices in the Lord” at Ps. 35.9, the poet, in typical parallel fashion, then has the bones speak for her in v. 10.  Jeremiah describes his passion for Yahweh as a “fire” in his heart (l�b) that is also in his bones (20.9), just as we say that a great orator has “fire in his belly.” The bones of the exiles will form the foundation of those who will be restored by Yahweh’s rãah in Ezekiel 37, and later Pharisidic Judaism speaks of the bones of the deceased “sprouting” with new life in their resurrected bodies.[7]  The bones of the prophet Elijah have special healing powers (2 Kgs. 13.21).  Therefore, the cult of relic bones does indeed have scriptural basis, and we also note the obvious parallel to the worship of the Buddha’s bones.

With all these body parts functioning in various ways, it is hard to find, as Robert A. Di Vito suggests, “a true ‘center’ for the [Hebrew] person . . . a ‘consciousness’ or a self-contained ‘self.’”[8] Di Vito also observes that the Hebrew word for face (p~n§m) is plural, reflecting all the ways in which a person appears in multifarious social interactions.  The plurality of faces in Chinese culture is similar, including the “loss of face” when a younger brother fails to defer to his elder brother, who would have a difference “face” with respect to his father.  One may be tempted to say that the j§va is the center of the Buddhist self, but that would not be accurate because this term simply designates the functioning of all the skandhas together.

Both David Kalupahana and Peter Harvey demonstrate how much influence material form (rãpa) has on Buddhist personality, even at the highest stage of spiritual development.[9]  It is Zen Buddhists, however, who match the earthy Hebrew rhetoric about the human person. When Bodhidharma (d. 534 CE) prepared to depart from his body, he asked four of his disciples what they had learned from him.  As each of them answered they were offered a part of his body: his skin, his flesh, his bones, and his marrow.  The Zen monk Nangaku also compared the achievements of his six disciples to six parts of his body. Deliberately inverting the usual priority of mind over body, the Zen monk Dogen (1200-1253) declared that “The Buddha Way is therefore to be attained above all through the body.”[10]  Interestingly enough, the Hebrews rank the flesh, skin, bones, and sinews as the most essential parts of the body-soul.[11]  The great Buddhist dialectician Nagarjuna (2nd Century CE) appears to be the source of Bodhidharma’s body correlates, but it is clear that Nagarjuna meant them as metaphors.[12]  In contrast it seems clear that, although dead bones rejoicing is most likely a figure of speech, the Hebrews were convinced that we think, feel, and perceive through and with all parts of our bodies.

In Search of a Christian Identity
by Robert Hamilton

The essential points here, are the “social disengagement” of the modern self, away from identifying solely with roles defined by the family group, and the development of a “personal unity” within the individual. Morally speaking, we are no longer empty vessels to be filled up by some god, or servant of god, we are now responsible for our own actions, and decisions, in light of our own moral compass. I would like to mention Julian Jayne’s seminal work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, as a pertinent hypothesis for an attempt to understand the enormous distance between the modern sense of self with that of the ancient mind, and its largely absent subjective state.[13]

“The preposterous hypothesis we have come to in the previous chapter is that at one time human nature was split in two, an executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man.”[14]

This hypothesis sits very well with De Vitos’ description of the permeable personal identity of Old Testament characters, who are “taken over,” or possessed, by Yahweh.[15] The evidence of the Old Testament stories points in this direction, where we have patriarchal family leaders, like Abraham and Noah, going around making morally contentious decisions (in today’s terms) based on their internal dialogue with a god – Jehovah.[16] As Jaynes postulates later in his book, today we would call this behaviour schizophrenia. De Vito, later in the article, confirms, that:

“Of course, this relative disregard for autonomy in no way limits one’s responsibility for conduct–not even when Yhwh has given “statutes that were not good” in order to destroy Israel “(Ezek 20:25-26).[17]

Cognitive Perspectives on Early Christology
by Daniel McClellan

The insights of CSR [cognitive science of religion] also better inform our reconstruction of early Jewish concepts of agency, identity, and divinity. Almost twenty years ago, Robert A. Di Vito argued from an anthropological perspective that the “person” in the Hebrew Bible “is more radically decentered, ‘dividual,’ and undefined with respect to personal boundaries … [and] in sharp contrast to modernity, it is identified more closely with, and by, its social roles.”40 Personhood was divisible and permeable in the Hebrew Bible, and while there was diachronic and synchronic variation in certain details, the same is evident in the literature of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. This is most clear in the widespread understanding of the spirit (רוח (and the soul (נפש – (often used interchangeably – as the primary loci of a person’s agency or capacity to act.41 Both entities were usually considered primarily constitutive of a person’s identity, but also distinct from their physical body and capable of existence apart from it.42 The physical body could also be penetrated or overcome by external “spirits,” and such possession imposed the agency and capacities of the possessor.43 The God of Israel was largely patterned after this concept of personhood,44 and was similarly partible, with God’s glory (Hebrew: כבוד ;Greek: δόξα), wisdom (חכמה/σοφία), spirit (רוח/πνεῦµα), word (דבר/λόγος), presence (שכינה ,(and name (שם/ὄνοµα) operating as autonomous and sometimes personified loci of agency that could presence the deity and also possess persons (or cultic objects45) and/or endow them with special status or powers.46

Did Christianity lead to schizophrenia?
Psychosis, psychology and self reference

by Roland Littlewood

This new deity could be encountered anywhere—“Wherever two are gathered in my name” (Mathew 18.20)—for Christianity was universal and individual (“neither Jew nor Greek… bond nor free… male or female, for you are all one man in Christ Jesus” says St. Paul). And ultimate control rested with Him, Creator and Master of the whole universe, throughout the whole universe. No longer was there any point in threatening your recalcitrant (Egyptian) idol for not coming up with the goods (Cumont, 1911/1958, p. 93): as similarly in colonial Africa, at least according to the missionaries (Peel, 2000). If God was independent of social context and place, then so was the individual self at least in its conversations with God (as Dilthey argues). Religious status was no longer signalled by external signs (circumcision), or social position (the higher stages of the Roman priesthood had been occupied by aspiring politicians in the course of their career: “The internal status of the officiating person was a matter of… indifference to the celestial spirits” [Cumont, 1911/1958, p. 91]). “Now it is not our flesh that we must circumcise, we must crucify ourselves, exterminate and mortify our unreasonable desires” (John Chrysostom, 1979), “circumcise your heart” says “St. Barnabas” (2003, p. 45) for religion became internal and private. Like the African or Roman self (Mauss, 1938/1979), the Jewish self had been embedded in a functioning society, individually decentred and socially contextualised (Di Vito, 1999); it survived death only through its bodily descendants: “But Abram cried, what can you give me, seeing I shall die childless” (Genesis 15.2). To die without issue was extinction in both religious systems (Madigan & Levenson, 2008). But now an enduring part of the self, or an associate of it—the soul—had a connection to what might be called body and consciousness yet had some sort of ill defined association with them. In its earthly body it was in potential communication with God. Like God it was immaterial and immortal. (The associated resurrection of the physical body, though an essential part of Christian dogma, has played an increasingly less important part in the Church [cf. Stroumsa, 1990].) For 19th-century pagan Yoruba who already accepted some idea of a hereafter, each village has its separate afterlife which had to be fused by the missionaries into a more universal schema (Peel, 2000, p. 175). If the conversation with God was one to one, then each self-aware individual had then to make up their own mind on adherence—and thus the detached observer became the surveyor of the whole world (Dumont, 1985). Sacral and secular became distinct (separate “functions” as Dumont calls them), further presaging a split between psychological faculties. The idea of the self/soul as an autonomous unit facing God became the basis, via the stages Mauss (1938/1979) briefly outlines, for a political philosophy of individualism (MacFarlane, 1978). The missionaries in Africa constantly attempted to reach the inside of their converts, but bemoaned that the Yoruba did not seem to have any inward core to the self (Peel, 2000, Chapter 9).

Embodying the Gospel:
Two Exemplary Practices

by Joel B. Green
pp. 12-16

Philosopher Charles Taylor’s magisterial account of the development of personal identity in the West provides a useful point of entry into this discussion. He shows how modern assumptions about personhood in the West developed from Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries, through major European philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (e.g.,Descartes, Locke, Kant), and into the present. The result is a modern human “self defined by the powers of disengaged reason—with its associated ideals of self-responsible freedom and dignity—of self-exploration, and of personal commitment.”2 These emphases provide a launching point for our modern conception of “inwardness,” that is, the widespread view that people have an inner self, which is the authentic self.

Given this baseline understanding of the human person, it would seem only natural to understand conversion in terms of interiority, and this is precisely what William James has done for the modern west. In his enormously influential 1901–02 Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University, published in 1902 under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience, James identifies salvation as the resolution of a person’s inner, subjective crisis.Salvation for James is thus an individual, instantaneous, feeling-based, interior experience.3 Following James, A.D. Nock’s celebrated study of conversion in antiquity reached a similar conclusion: “By conversion we mean there orientation of the soul of an individual, his [sic] deliberate turning from in different or from an earlier form of piety to another, a turning which involves a consciousness that a great change is involved, that the old was wrong and the new is right.” Nock goes on to write of “a passion of willingness and acquiescence, which removes the feeling of anxiety, a sense of perceiving truths not known before, a sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without and an ecstasy of happiness . . .”4 In short, what is needed is a “change of heart.”

However pervasive they may be in the contemporary West, whether in-side or outside the church, such assumptions actually sit uneasily with Old and New Testament portraits of humanity. Let me mention two studies that press our thinking in an alternative direction. Writing with reference to Old Testament anthropology, Robert Di Vito finds that the human “(1) is deeply embedded, or engaged, in its social identity, (2) is comparatively decentered and undefined with respect to personal boundaries, (3) is relatively trans-parent, socialized, and embodied (in other words, is altogether lacking in a sense of ‘inner depths’), and (4) is ‘authentic’ precisely in its heteronomy, in its obedience to another and dependence upon another.”5 Two aspects of Di Vito’s summary are of special interest: first, his emphasis on a more communitarian experience of personhood; and second, his emphasis on embodiment. Were we to take seriously what these assumptions might mean for embracing and living out the Gospel, we might reflect more on what it means to be saved within the community of God’s people and, indeed, what it means to be saved in relation to the whole of God’s creation. We might also reflect less on conversion as decision-making and more on conversion as pattern-of-life.

The second study, by Klaus Berger, concerns the New Testament. Here,Berger investigates the New Testament’s “historical psychology,” repeatedly highlighting both the ease with which we read New Testament texts against modern understandings of humanity and the problems resident in our doing so.6 His list of troublesome assumptions—troublesome because they are more at home in the contemporary West than in the ancient Mediterranean world—includes these dualities, sometimes even dichotomies: doing and being, identity and behavior, internal and external. A more integrated understanding of people, the sort we find in the New Testament world, he insists, would emphasize life patterns that hold together believing, thinking, feeling, and behaving, and allow for a clear understanding that human behavior in the world is both simply and profoundly em-bodied belief. Perspectives on human transformation that take their point  of departure from this “psychology” would emphasize humans in relation-ship with other humans, the bodily nature of human allegiances and commitments, and the fully integrated character of human faith and life. […]

Given how John’s message is framed in an agricultural context, it is not a surprise that his point turns on an organic metaphor rather than a mechanical one. The resulting frame has no room for prioritizing inner (e.g.,“mind” or “heart”) over outer (e.g., “body” or “behavior”), nor of fitting disparate pieces together to manufacture a “product,” nor of correlating status and activity as cause and effect. Organic metaphors neither depend on nor provoke images of hierarchical systems but invite images of integration, interrelation, and interdependence. Consistent with this organic metaphor, practices do not occupy a space outside the system of change, but are themselves part and parcel of the system. In short, John’s agricultural metaphor inseparably binds “is” and “does” together.

Ressurrection and the Restoration of Israel:
The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
by Jon Douglas Levenson
pp. 108-114

In our second chapter, we discussed one of the prime warrants often adduced either for the rejection of resurrection (by better-informed individuals) or for its alleged absence, and the alleged absence of any notion of the afterlife, in Judaism (by less informed individuals). That warrant is the finality of death in the Hebrew Bible, or at least in most of it, and certainly in what is from a Jewish point of view its most important subsection, the first five books. For no resurrections take place therein, and predictions of a general resurrection at the end of time can be found in the written Torah only through ingenious derash of the sort that the rabbinic tradition itself does not univocally endorse or replicate in its translations. In the same chapter, we also identified one difficulty with this notion that the Pentateuch exhibits no possibility of an afterlife but supports, instead, the absolute finality of death, and to this point we must now return. I am speaking of the difficulty of separating individuals from their families (including the extended family that is the nation). If, in fact, individuals are fundamentally and inextricably embedded within their fam ilies, then their own deaths, however terrifying in prospect, will lack the final ity that death carries with it in a culture with a more individualistic, atomistic understanding of the self. What I am saying here is something more radical than the truism that in the Hebrew Bible, parents draw consolation from the thought that their descendants will survive them (e.g., Gen 48:11), just as, conversely, the parents are plunged into a paralyzing grief at the thought that their progeny have perished (e.g., Gen 37:33–35; Jer 31:15). This is, of course, the case, and probably more so in the ancient world, where children were the support of one’s old age, than in modern societies, where the state and the pension fund fill many roles previously concentrated in the family. That to which I am pointing, rather, is that the self of an individual in ancient Israel was entwined with the self of his or her family in ways that are foreign to the modern West, and became foreign to some degree already long ago.

Let us take as an example the passage in which Jacob is granted ‘‘the blessing of Abraham,’’ his grandfather, according to the prayer of Isaac, his father, to ‘‘possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham’’ (Gen 28:1–4). The blessing on Abraham, as we have seen, can be altogether and satisfactorily fulfilled in Abraham’s descendants. Thus, too, can Ezekiel envision the appointment of ‘‘a single shepherd over [Israel] to tend them—My servant David,’’ who had passed away many generations before (Ezek 34:23). Can we, without derash, see in this a prediction that David, king of Judah and Israel, will be raised from the dead? To do so is to move outside the language of the text and the culture of Israel at the time of Ezekiel, which does not speak of the resurrections of individuals at all. But to say, as the School of Rabbi Ishmael said about ‘‘to Aaron’’ in Num 18:28,1 that Ezekiel means only one who is ‘‘like David’’—a humble shepherd boy who comes to triumph in battle and rises to royal estate, vindicating his nation and making it secure and just—is not quite the whole truth, either. For biblical Hebrew is quite capable of saying that one person is ‘‘like’’ another or descends from another’s lineage (e.g., Deut 18:15; 2 Kgs 22:2; Isa 11:1) without implying identity of some sort. The more likely interpretation, rather, is that Ezekiel here predicts the miraculous appearance of a royal figure who is not only like David but also of David, a person of Davidic lineage, that is, who functions as David redivivus. This is not the resurrection of a dead man, to be sure, but neither is it the appearance of some unrelated person who only acts like David, or of a descendant who is ‘‘a chip off the old block.’’ David is, in one obvious sense, dead and buried (1 Kgs 2:10), and his death is final and irreversible. In another sense, harder for us to grasp, however, his identity survives him and can be manifested again in a descendant who acts as he did (or, to be more precise, as Ezekiel thought he acted) and in whom the promise to David is at long last fulfilled. For David’s identity was not restricted to the one man of that name but can reappear to a large measure in kin who share it.

This is obviously not reincarnation. For that term implies that the ancient Israelites believed in something like the later Jewish and Christian ‘‘soul’’ or like the notion (such as one finds in some religions) of a disembodied consciousness that can reappear in another person after its last incarnation has died. In the Hebrew Bible, however, there is nothing of the kind. The best approximation is the nepes, the part of the person that manifests his or her life force or vitality most directly. James Barr defines the nepes as ‘‘a superior controlling centre which accompanies, exposes and directs the existence of that totality [of the personality] and one which, especially, provides the life to the whole.’’2 Although the nepes does exhibit a special relationship to the life of the whole person, it is doubtful that it constitutes ‘‘a superior controlling center.’’ As Robert Di Vito points out, ‘‘in the OT, human faculties and bodily organs enjoy a measure of independence that is simply difficult to grasp today without dismissing it as merely poetic speech or, even worse, ‘primitive thinking.’’’ Thus, the eye talks or thinks (Job 24:15) and even mocks (Prov 30:17), the ear commends or pronounces blessed (Job 29:11), blood cries out (Gen 4:10), the nepes (perhaps in the sense of gullet or appetite) labors (Prov 16:26) or pines (Ps 84:3), kidneys rejoice and lips speak (Prov 23:16), hands shed blood (Deut 21:7), the heart and flesh sing (Ps 84:3), all the psalmist’s bones say, ‘‘Lord, who is like you?’’ (Ps 35:10), tongue and lips lie or speak the truth (Prov 12:19, 22), hearts are faithful (Neh 9:8) or wayward (Jer 5:23), and so forth.3 The point is not that the individual is simply an agglomeration of distinct parts. It is, rather, that the nepes is one part of the self among many and does not control the entirety, as the old translation ‘‘soul’’ might lead us to expect.4 A similar point might be made about the modern usage of the term person.

[4. It is less clear to me that this is also Di Vito’s point. He writes, for example: ‘‘The biblical character presents itself to us more as parts than as a whole . . . accordingly, in the OT one searches in vain for anything really corresponding to the Platonic localization of desire and emotion in a central ‘locale,’ like the ‘soul’ under the hegemony of reason, a unified and self-contained center from which the individual’s activities might flow, a ‘self’ that might finally assert its control’’ (‘‘Old Testament Anthropology,’’ 228).]

All of the organs listed above, Di Vito points out, are ‘‘susceptible to moral judgment and evaluation.’’5 Not only that, parts of the body besides the nepes can actually experience emotional states. As Aubrey R. Johnson notes, ‘‘Despondency, for example, is felt to have a shriveling effect upon the bones . . . just as they are said to decay or become soft with fear or distress, and so may be referred to as being themselves troubled or afraid’’ (e.g., Ezek 37:11; Hab 3:16; Jer 23:9; Ps 31:11). In other words, ‘‘the various members and secretions of the body . . . can all be thought of as revealing psychical properties,’’6 and this is another way of saying that the nepes does not really correspond to Barr’s ‘‘superior controlling centre’’ at all. For many of the functions here attributed to the nepes are actually distributed across a number of parts of the body. The heart, too, often functions as the ‘‘controlling centre,’’ determining, for example, whether Israel will follow God’s laws or not (e.g., Ezek 11:19). The nepes in the sense of the life force of the body is sometimes identified with the blood, rather than with an insensible spiritual essence of the sort that words like ‘‘soul’’ or ‘‘person’’ imply. It is in light of this that we can best understand the Pentateuchal laws that forbid the eating of blood on the grounds that it is the equivalent of eating life itself, eating, that is, an animal that is not altogether dead (Lev 17:11, 14; Deut 12:23; cf. Gen 9:4–5). If the nepes ‘‘provides the life to the whole,’’7 so does the blood, with which laws like these, in fact, equate it. The bones, which, as we have just noted, can experience emotional states, function likewise on occasion. When a dead man is hurriedly thrown into Elisha’s grave in 2 Kgs 13:21, it is contact with the wonder-working prophet’s bones that brings about his resurrection. And when the primal man at long last finds his soul mate, he exclaims not that she (unlike the animals who have just been presented to him) shares a nepes with him but rather that she ‘‘is bone of my bones / And flesh of my flesh’’ (Gen 2:23).

In sum, even if the nepes does occasionally function as a ‘‘controlling centre’’ or a provider of life, it does not do so uniquely. The ancient Israelite self is more dynamic and internally complex than such a formulation allows. It should also be noticed that unlike the ‘‘soul’’ in most Western philosophy, the biblical nepes can die. When the non-Israelite prophet Balaam expresses his wish to ‘‘die the death of the upright,’’ it is his nepes that he hopes will share their fate (Num 23:10), and the same applies to Samson when he voices his desire to die with the Philistines whose temple he then topples upon all (Judg 16:30). Indeed, ‘‘to kill the nepes’’ functions as a term for homicide in biblical Hebrew, in which context, as elsewhere, it indeed has a meaning like that of the English ‘‘person’’ (e.g., Num 31:19; Ezek 13:19).8 As Hans Walter Wolff puts it, nepes ‘‘is never given the meaning of an indestructible core of being, in contradistinction to the physical life . . . capable of living when cut off from that life.’’9 Like heart, blood, and bones, the nepes can cease to function. It is not quite correct to say, however, that this is because it is ‘‘physical’’ rather than ‘‘spiritual,’’ for the other parts of the self that we consider physical— heart, blood, bones, or whatever—are ‘‘spiritual’’ as well—registering emotions, reacting to situations, prompting behavior, expressing ideas, each in its own way. A more accurate summary statement would be Johnson’s: ‘‘The Israelite conception of man [is] as a psycho-physical organism.’’10 ‘‘For some time at least [after a person’s death] he may live on as an individual (apart from his possible survival within the social unit),’’ observes Johnson, ‘‘in such scattered elements of his personality as the bones, the blood and the name.’’11 It would seem to follow that if ever he is to return ‘‘as a psycho-physical organ ism,’’ it will have to be not through reincarnation of his soul in some new person but through the resurrection of the body, with all its parts reassembled and revitalized. For in the understanding of the Hebrew Bible, a human being is not a spirit, soul, or consciousness that happens to inhabit this body or that—or none at all. Rather, the unity of body and soul (to phrase the point in the unhappy dualistic vocabulary that is still quite removed from the way the Hebrew Bible thought about such things) is basic to the person. It thus follows that however distant the resurrection of the dead may be from the understanding of death and life in ancient Israel, the concept of immortality in the sense of a soul that survives death is even more distant. And whatever the biblical problems with the doctrine of resurrection—and they are formidable—the biblical problems with the immortality that modern Jewish prayer books prefer (as we saw in our first chapter) are even greater.

Di Vito points, however, to an aspect of the construction of the self in ancient Israel that does have some affinities with immortality. This is the thorough embeddedness of that individual within the family and the corollary difficulty in the context of this culture of isolating a self apart from the kin group. Drawing upon Charles Taylor’s highly suggestive study The Sources of the Self,12 Di Vito points out that ‘‘salient features of modern identity, such as its pronounced individualism, are grounded in modernity’s location of the self in the ‘inner depths’ of one’s interiority rather than in one’s social role or public relations.’’13 Cautioning against the naïve assumption that ancient Israel adhered to the same conception of the self, Di Vito develops four points of contrast between modern Western and ancient Israelite thinking on this point. In the Hebrew Bible,

the subject (1) is deeply embedded, or engaged, in its social identity, (2) is comparatively decentered and undefined with respect to personal boundaries, (3) is relatively transparent, socialized, and embodied (in other words, is altogether lacking in a sense of ‘‘inner depths’’), and (4) is ‘‘authentic’’ precisely in its heteronomy, in its obedience to another and dependence upon another.14

Although Di Vito’s formulation is overstated and too simple—is every biblical figure, even David, presented as ‘‘altogether lacking in a sense of ‘inner depths’’’?—his first and last points are highly instructive and suggest that the familial and social understanding of ‘‘life’’ in the Hebrew Bible is congruent with larger issues in ancient Israelite culture. ‘‘Life’’ and ‘‘death’’ mean different things in a culture like ours, in which the subject is not so ‘‘deeply embedded . . . in its social identity’’ and in which authenticity tends to be associated with cultivation of individual traits at the expense of conformity, and with the attainment of personal autonomy and independence.

The contrast between the biblical and the modern Western constructions of personal identity is glaring when one considers the structure of what Di Vito calls ‘‘the patriarchal family.’’ This ‘‘system,’’ he tells us, ‘‘with strict subor dination of individual goals to those of the extended lineal group, is designed to ensure the continuity and survival of the family.’’15 In this, of course, such a system stands in marked contrast to liberal political theory that has developed over the past three and a half centuries, which, in fact, virtually assures that people committed to that theory above all else will find the Israelite system oppressive. For the liberal political theory is one that has increasingly envi sioned a system in which society is composed of only two entities, the state and individual citizens, all of whom have equal rights quite apart from their famil ial identities and roles. Whether or not one affirms such an identity or plays the role that comes with it (or any role different from that of other citizens) is thus relegated to the domain of private choice. Individuals are guaranteed the free dom to renounce the goals of ‘‘the extended lineal group’’ and ignore ‘‘the continuity and survival of the family,’’ or, increasingly, to redefine ‘‘family’’ according to their own private preferences. In this particular modern type of society, individuals may draw consolation from the thought that their group (however defined) will survive their own deaths. As we have had occasion to remark, there is no reason to doubt that ancient Israelites did so, too. But in a society like ancient Israel, in which ‘‘the subject . . . is deeply embedded, or engaged, in its social identity,’’ ‘‘with strict subordination of individual goals to those of the extended lineal group,’’ the loss of the subject’s own life and the survival of the familial group cannot but have a very different resonance from the one most familiar to us. For even though the subject’s death is irreversible—his or her nepes having died just like the rest of his or her body/soul—his or her fulfillment may yet occur, for identity survives death. God can keep his promise to Abraham or his promise to Israel associated with the gift of David even after Abraham or David, as an individual subject, has died. Indeed, in light of Di Vito’s point that ‘‘the subject . . . is comparatively decentered and undefined with respect to personal boundaries,’’ the very distinction between Abraham and the nation whose covenant came through him (Genesis 15; 17), or between David and the Judean dynasty whom the Lord has pledged never to abandon (2 Sam 7:8–16; Ps 89:20–38), is too facile.

Our examination of personal identity in the earlier literature of the Hebrew Bible thus suggests that the conventional view is too simple: death was not final and irreversible after all, at least not in the way in which we are inclined to think of these matters. This is not, however, because individuals were be lieved to possess an indestructible essence that survived their bodies. On the one hand, the body itself was thought to be animated in ways foreign to modern materialistic and biologistic thinking, but, on the other, even its most spiritual part, its nepeˇs (life force) or its n˘eˇs¯amâ (breath), was mortal. Rather, the boundary between individual subjects and the familial/ethnic/national group in which they dwelt, to which they were subordinate, and on which they depended was so fluid as to rob death of some of the horror it has in more individualistic cultures, influenced by some version of social atomism. In more theological texts, one sees this in the notion that subjects can die a good death, ‘‘old and contented . . . and gathered to [their] kin,’’ like Abraham, who lived to see a partial—though only a partial—fulfillment of God’s promise of land, progeny, and blessing upon him, or like Job, also ‘‘old and contented’’ after his adversity came to an end and his fortunes—including progeny—were restored (Gen 25:8; Job 42:17). If either of these patriarchal figures still felt terror in the face of his death, even after his afflictions had been reversed, the Bible gives us no hint of it.16 Death in situations like these is not a punishment, a cause for complaint against God, or the provocation of an existential crisis. But neither is it death as later cultures, including our own, conceive it.

Given this embeddedness in family, there is in Israelite culture, however, a threat that is the functional equivalent to death as we think of it. This is the absence or loss of descendants.

The Master and His Emissary
by Iain McGilchrist
pp. 263-264

Whoever it was that composed or wrote them [the Homeric epics], they are notable for being the earliest works of Western civilisation that exemplify a number of characteristics that are of interest to us. For in their most notable qualities – their ability to sustain a unified theme and produce a single, whole coherent narrative over a considerable length, in their degree of empathy, and insight into character, and in their strong sense of noble values (Scheler’s Lebenswerte and above) – they suggest a more highly evolved right hemisphere.

That might make one think of the importance to the right hemisphere of the human face. Yet, despite this, there are in Homeric epic few descriptions of faces. There is no doubt about the reality of the emotions experienced by the figures caught up in the drama of the Iliad or the Odyssey: their feelings of pride, hate, envy, anger, shame, pity and love are the stuff of which the drama is made. But for the most part these emotions are conveyed as relating to the body and to bodily gesture, rather than the face – though there are moments, such as at the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey, when we seem to see the faces of the characters, Penelope’s eyes full of tears, those of Odysseus betraying the ‘ache of longing rising from his breast’. The lack of emphasis on the face might seem puzzling at a time of increasing empathic engagement, but I think there is a reason for this.

In Homer, as I mentioned in Part I, there was no word for the body as such, nor for the soul or the mind, for that matter, in the living person. The sōma was what was left on the battlefield, and the psuchēwas what took flight from the lips of the dying warrior. In the living person, when Homer wants to speak of someone’s mind or thoughts, he refers to what is effectively a physical organ – Achilles, for example, ‘consulting his thumos’. Although the thumos is a source of vital energy within that leads us to certain actions, the thumos has fleshly characteristics such as requiring food and drink, and a bodily situation, though this varies. According to Michael Clarke’s Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer, Homeric man does not have a body or a mind: ‘rather this thought and consciousness are as inseparable a part of his bodily life as are movement and metabolism’. 15 The body is indistinguishable from the whole person. 16 ‘Thinking, emotion, awareness, reflection, will’ are undertaken in the breast, not the head: ‘the ongoing process of thought is conceived of as if it were precisely identified with the palpable inhalation of the breath, and the half-imagined mingling of breath with blood and bodily fluids in the soft, warm, flowing substances that make up what is behind the chest wall.’ 17 He stresses the importance of flow, of melting and of coagulation. The common ground of meaning is not in a particular static thing but in the ongoing process of living, which ‘can be seen and encapsulated in different contexts by a length of time or an oozing liquid’. These are all images of transition between different states of flux, different degrees of permanence, and allowing the possibility of ambiguity: ‘The relationship between the bodily and mental identity of these entities is subtle and elusive.’ 18 Here there is no necessity for the question ‘is this mind or is it body?’ to have a definitive answer. Such forbearance, however, had become impossible by the time of Plato, and remains, according to current trends in neurophilosophy, impossible today.

Words suggestive of the mind, the thumos ‘family’, for example, range fluidly and continuously between actor and activity, between the entity that thinks and the thoughts or emotions that are its products. 19 Here Clarke is speaking of terms such as is, aiōn, menos. ‘The life of Homeric man is defined in terms of processes more precisely than of things.’ 20 Menos, for example, refers to force or strength, and can also mean semen, despite being often located in the chest. But it also refers to ‘the force of violent self-propelled motion in something non-human’, perhaps like Scheler’s Drang: again more an activity than a thing. 21

This profound embodiment of thought and emotion, this emphasis on processes that are always in flux, rather than on single, static entities, this refusal of the ‘either/ or’ distinction between mind and body, all perhaps again suggest a right-hemisphere-dependent version of the world. But what is equally obvious to the modern mind is the relative closeness of the point of view. And that, I believe, helps to explain why there is little description of the face: to attend to the face requires a degree of detached observation. That there is here a work of art at all, a capacity to frame human existence in this way, suggests, it is true, a degree of distance, as well as a degree of co-operation of the hemispheres in achieving it. But it is the gradual evolution of greater distance in post-Homeric Greek culture that causes the efflorescence, the ‘unpacking’, of both right and left hemisphere capacities in the service of both art and science.

With that distance comes the term closest to the modern, more disembodied, idea of mind, nous (or noos), which is rare in Homer. When nous does occur in Homer, it remains distinct, almost always intellectual, not part of the body in any straightforward sense: according to Clarke it ‘may be virtually identified with a plan or stratagem’. 22 In conformation to the processes of the left hemisphere, it is like the flight of an arrow, directional. 23

By the late fifth and fourth centuries, separate ‘concepts of body and soul were firmly fixed in Greek culture’. 24 In Plato, and thence for the next two thousand years, the soul is a prisoner in the body, as he describes it in the Phaedo, awaiting the liberation of death.

The Great Shift
by James L. Kugel
pp. 163-165

A related belief is attested in the story of Hannah (1 Sam 1). Hannah is, to her great distress, childless, and on one occasion she goes to the great temple at Shiloh to seek God’s help:

The priest Eli was sitting on a seat near the doorpost of the temple of the LORD . In the bitterness of her heart, she prayed to the LORD and wept. She made a vow and said: “O LORD of Hosts, if You take note of Your maidservant’s distress, and if You keep me in mind and do not neglect Your maidservant and grant Your maidservant a male offspring, I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” * Now as she was speaking her prayer before the LORD , Eli was watching her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart [i.e., silently]; her lips were moving, but her voice could not be heard, so Eli thought she was drunk. Eli said to her: “How long are you going to keep up this drunkenness? Cut out the boozing!” But Hannah answered: “Oh no, sir, I am a woman of saddened spirit. I have drunk no wine or strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the LORD . Don’t take your maidservant for an ill-behaved woman! I have been praying this long because of my great distress.” Eli answered her: “Then go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” (1 Sam 1:9–17)

If Eli couldn’t hear her, how did Hannah ever expect God to hear her? But she did. Somehow, even though no sound was coming out of her mouth, she apparently believed that God would hear her vow and, she hoped, act accordingly. (Which He did; “at the turn of the year she bore a son,” 1 Sam 1:20.) This too seemed to defy the laws of physics, just as much as Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, or any prayer uttered at some distance from God’s presumed locale, a temple or other sacred spot.

Many other things could be said about the Psalms, or about biblical prayers in general, but the foregoing three points have been chosen for what they imply for the overall theme of this book. We have already seen a great deal of evidence indicating that people in biblical times believed the mind to be semipermeable, capable of being infiltrated from the outside. This is attested not only in the biblical narratives examined earlier, but it is the very premise on which all of Israel’s prophetic corpus stands. The semipermeable mind is prominent in the Psalms as well; in a telling phrase, God is repeatedly said to penetrate people’s “kidneys and heart” (Pss 7:10, 26:2, 139:13; also Jer 11:20, 17:10, 20:12), entering these messy internal organs 28 where thoughts were believed to dwell and reading—as if from a book—all of people’s hidden ideas and intentions. God just enters and looks around:

You have examined my heart, visited [me] at night;
You have tested me and found no wickedness; my mouth has not transgressed. (Ps 17:3)
Examine me, O LORD , and test me; try my kidneys and my heart. (26:2)

[28. Robert North rightly explained references to a person’s “heart” alone ( leb in biblical Hebrew) not as a precise reference to that particular organ, but as “a vaguely known or confused jumble of organs, somewhere in the area of the heart or stomach”: see North (1993), 596.]

Indeed God is so close that inside and outside are sometimes fused:

Let me bless the LORD who has given me counsel; my kidneys have been instructing me at night.
I keep the LORD before me at all times, just at my right hand, so I will not stumble. (Ps 16:7–8)

(Who’s giving this person advice, an external God or an internal organ?)

Such is God’s passage into a person’s semipermeable mind. But the flip side of all this is prayer, when a person’s words, devised on the inside, in the human mind, leave his or her lips in order to reach—somehow—God on the outside. As we have seen, those words were indeed believed to make their way to God; in fact, it was the cry of the victim that in some sense made the world work, causing God to notice and take up the cause of justice and right. Now, the God who did so was also, we have seen, a mighty King, who presumably ranged over all of heaven and earth:

He mounted on a cherub and flew off, gliding on the wings of the wind. (Ps 18:11)

He makes the clouds His chariot, He goes about on the wings of the wind. (Ps 104:3)

Yet somehow, no matter where His travels might take Him, God is also right there, just on the other side of the curtain that separates ordinary from extraordinary reality, allowing Him to hear the sometimes geographically distant cry of the victim or even to hear an inaudible, silent prayer like Hannah’s. The doctrine of divine omnipresence was still centuries away and was in fact implicitly denied in many biblical texts, 29 yet something akin to omnipresence seems to be implied in God’s ability to hear and answer prayers uttered from anywhere, no matter where He is. In fact, this seems implied as well in the impatient, recurrent question seen above, “How long, O L ORD ?”; the psalmist seems to be saying, “I know You’ve heard me, so when will You answer?”

Perhaps the most striking thing suggested by all this is the extent to which the Psalms’ depiction of God seems to conform to the general contours of the great Outside as described in an earlier chapter. God is huge and powerful, but also all-enfolding and, hence, just a whisper away. Somehow, people in biblical times seem to have just assumed that God, on the other side of that curtain, could hear their prayers, no matter where they were. All this again suggests a sense of self quite different from our own—a self that could not only be permeated by a great, external God, but whose thoughts and prayers could float outward and reach a God who was somehow never far, His domain beginning precisely where the humans’ left off.

One might thus say that, in this and in other ways, the psalmists’ underlying assumptions constitute a kind of biblical translation of a basic way of perceiving that had started many, many millennia earlier, a rephrasing of that fundamental reality in the particular terms of the religion of Israel. That other, primeval sense of reality and this later, more specific version of it found in these psalms present the same basic outline, which is ultimately a way of fitting into the world: the little human (more specifically in the Psalms, the little supplicant) faced with a huge enfolding Outside (in the Psalms, the mighty King) who overshadows everything and has all the power: sometimes kind and sometimes cruel (in the Psalms, sometimes heeding one’s request, but at other times oddly inattentive or sluggish), the Outside is so close as to move in and out of the little human (in the Psalms as elsewhere, penetrating a person’s insides, but also, able to pick up the supplicant’s request no matter where or how uttered). 30

pp. 205-207

The biblical “soul” was not originally thought to be immortal; in fact, the whole idea that human beings have some sort of sacred or holy entity inside them did not exist in early biblical times. But the soul as we conceive of it did eventually come into existence, and how this transformation came about is an important part of the history that we are tracing.

The biblical book of Proverbs is one of the least favorites of ordinary readers. To put the matter bluntly, Proverbs can be pretty monotonous: verse after verse tells you how much better the “righteous” are than the “wicked”: that the righteous tread the strait and narrow, control their appetites, avoid the company of loose women, save their money for a rainy day, and so forth, while the “wicked” always do quite the opposite. In spite of the way the book hammers away at these basic themes, a careful look at specific verses sometimes reveals something quite striking. 1 Here, for example, is what one verse has to say about the overall subject of the present study:

A person’s soul is the lamp of the LORD , who searches out all the innermost chambers. (Prov 20:27)

At first glance, this looks like the old theme of the semipermeable mind, whose innermost chambers are accessible to an inquisitive God. But in this verse, God does not just enter as we have seen Him do so often in previous chapters, when He appeared (apparently in some kind of waking dream) to Abraham or Moses, or put His words in the mouth of Amos or Jeremiah, or in general was held to “inspect the kidneys and heart” (that is, the innermost thoughts) of people. Here, suddenly, God seems to have an ally on the inside: the person’s own soul.

This point was put forward in rather pungent form by an ancient Jewish commentator, Rabbi Aḥa (fourth century CE ). He cited this verse to suggest that the human soul is actually a kind of secret agent, a mole planted by God inside all human beings. The soul’s job is to report to God (who is apparently at some remove) on everything that a person does or thinks:

“A person’s soul is the lamp of the LORD , who searches out all the innermost chambers”: Just as kings have their secret agents * who report to the king on each and every thing, so does the Holy One have secret agents who report on everything that a person does in secret . . . The matter may be compared to a man who married the daughter of a king. The man gets up early each morning to greet the king, and the king says, “You did such-and-such a thing in your house [yesterday], then you got angry and you beat your slave . . .” and so on for each and every thing that occurred. The man leaves and says to the people of the palace, “Which of you told the king that I did such-and-so? How does he know?” They reply to him, “Don’t be foolish! You’re married to his daughter and you want to know how he finds out? His own daughter tells him!” So likewise, a person can do whatever he wants, but his soul reports everything back to God. 2

The soul, in other words, is like God’s own “daughter”: she dwells inside a human body, but she reports regularly to her divine “father.” Or, to put this in somewhat more schematic terms: God, who is on the outside, has something that is related or connected to Him on the inside, namely, “a person’s soul.” But wasn’t it always that way?

Before getting to an answer, it will be worthwhile to review in brief something basic that was seen in the preceding chapters. Over a period of centuries, the basic model of God’s interaction with human beings came to be reconceived. After a time, He no longer stepped across the curtain separating ordinary from extraordinary reality. Now He was not seen at all—at first because any sort of visual sighting was held to be lethal, and later because it was difficult to conceive of. God’s voice was still heard, but He Himself was an increasingly immense being, filling the heavens; and then finally (moving ahead to post-biblical times), He was just axiomatically everywhere all at once. This of course clashed with the old idea of the sanctuary (a notion amply demonstrated in ancient Mesopotamian religion as well), according to which wherever else He was, God was physically present in his earthly “house,” that is, His temple. But this ancient notion as well came to be reconfigured in Israel; perched like a divine hologram above the outstretched wings of the cherubim in the Holy of Holies, God was virtually bodiless, issuing orders (like “Let there be light”) that were mysteriously carried out. 3

If conceiving of such a God’s being was difficult, His continued ability to penetrate the minds of humans ought to have been, if anything, somewhat easier to account for. He was incorporeal and omnipresent; 4 what could stand in the way of His penetrating a person’s mind, or being there already? Yet precisely for this reason, Proverbs 20:27 is interesting. It suggests that God does not manage this search unaided: there is something inside the human being that plays an active role in this process, the person’s own self or soul.

p. 390

It is striking that the authors of this study went on specifically to single out the very different sense of self prevailing in the three locales as responsible for the different ways in which voice hearing was treated: “Outside Western culture people are more likely to imagine [a person’s] mind and self as interwoven with others. These are, of course, social expectations, or cultural ‘invitations’—ways in which other people expect people like themselves to behave. Actual people do not always follow social norms. Nonetheless, the more ‘independent’ emphasis of what we typically call the ‘West’ and the more interdependent emphasis of other societies has been demonstrated ethnographically and experimentally many times in many places—among them India and Africa . . .” The passage continues: “For instance, the anthropologist McKim Marriott wanted to be so clear about how much Hindus conceive themselves to be made through relationships, compared with Westerners, that he called the Hindu person a ‘dividual’. His observations have been supported by other anthropologists of South Asia and certainly in south India, and his term ‘dividual’ was picked up to describe other forms of non-Western personhood. The psychologist Glenn Adams has shown experimentally that Ghanaians understand themselves as intrinsically connected through relationships. The African philosopher John Mbiti remarks: ‘only in terms of other people does the [African] individual become conscious of his own being.’” Further, see Markus and Mullally (1997); Nisbett (2004); Marriot (1976); Miller (2007); Trawick (1992); Strathern (1988); Ma and Schoeneman (1997); Mbiti (1969).

The “Other” Psychology of Julian Jaynes
by Brian J. McVeigh
p. 74

The Heart is the Ruler of the Body

We can begin with the word xin1, or heart, though given its broader denotations related to both emotions and thought, a better translation is “heart-mind” (Yu 2003). Xin1 is a pictographic representation of a physical heart, and as we will see below, it forms the most primary and elemental building block for Chinese linguo-concepts having to do with the psychological. The xin1 oversaw the activities of an individual’s psychophysiological existence and was regarded as the ruler of the body — indeed, the person — in the same way a king ruled his people. If individuals cultivate and control their hearts, then the family, state, and world cold be properly governed (Yu 2007, 2009b).

Psycho-Physio-Spiritual Aspects of the Person

Under the control of heart were the wu3shen2 of “five spirits” (shen2, hun2, po4, yi4, zhi4) which dwelt respectively in the heart, liver, lungs, spleen, and kidneys. The five shen2 were implicated in the operations of thinking, perception, and bodily systems and substances. A phonosemantic, shen2 has been variously translated as mind, spirit, supernatural being, consciousness, vitality, expression, soul, energy, god, or numen/numinous. The left side element of this logograph means manifest, show, demonstrate; we can speculate that whatever was manifested came from a supernatural source; it may have meant “ancestral spirit” (Keightley 1978: 17). The right side provides sound but also the additional meaning of “to state” or “report to a superior”; again we can speculate that it meant communing to a supernatural superior.

New Religion of the Late Axial Age

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 226-230

I have suggested here that rabbinic Judaism is a new religion, divorced and separate from the biblical, Israelite religion of the Temple cult that preceded it. Yet my discussion of the late biblical antecedents of Hellenism, added to the evidence I quoted earlier in this book about the possibility of synagogues’ existing before the destruction, should raise a flag of caution. In fact, the rabbinic obsession with Scripture, manifest in the rabbis’ interpretations of every detail of biblical law, including the minute facets of the moribund Temple and its procedures, makes it clear that rabbinic Judaism is not a wholly new religion, created ex nihilo, out of nothingness. This shift was already under way before the time of the rabbis. On one hand, there would be no wholesale assimilation to Hellenism with a loss of Jewish identity. On the other, ancient Jewish rituals were not abandoned. Rather, there would be a measured appropriation and adaptation of Greco – Roman culture that found its expression in post – 70 CE Judaism.

The ways in which I have characterized Judaism, whether as utterly new or as a remix of an old tune, are fraught with ideological significance. What characterizes the new Judaism and separates it from other emerging ideologies? Is rabbinic Judaism just one more new religion, one more flavor of many Judaisms in the Late Antique world, there to take its place alongside Christianity and other Greco – Roman religions? Or is rabbinic Judaism the one and only authentic inheritor of biblical “Judaism,” genetically similar by virtue of both the performed commandments ( mitzvot ) and the constant justyfying of those mitzvot through tying them to their presumed Scriptural origins? Remember that in the period I am considering, rabbinic Judaism was not the major face of Judaism it would become for the millennium of its European ascendance, say from 940 to 1940 CE. It was only in that much later period that rabbis had the actual power to enforce their dicta. The first millennium of rabbinic Judaism resembled the Judaism we have now, in which each individual Jew chooses adherence to the commandments and how that adherence is manifested in daily behavior. To get to now, the rabbis then needed persistence, vision, and Roman Stoic stolidity to survive. The very virtues the rabbis adopted from Roman culture were among the forces that allowed Judaism to survive against oppressive odds. […]

Even as one could distinguish between the rabbis and other Jews within the Jewish world—the rabbis themselves made this distinction—nevertheless they all shared a common Judaism that was heavily inflected by their common Hellenism. The details I have surveyed in this book have made it clear that by and large, the water they swam in was very good. And when they were asked “What the hell is water?” the answer, surely, was that among the many tributaries that made up the empire—from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, from the Euphrates to the Caspian Sea—Judaism took its place within the Roman Empire as a Roman people and religion. Its transformation from the Jerusalem – centered Temple cult to a world religion was a reinvention, a resurrection if you will, accomplished through the vivifying waters of Greco – Roman culture.

The Minds of the Bible
by Rabbi James Cohn
Kindle Locations 1089-1103

It is fascinating to consider that in the same moment that the New Testament is championed in Christianity as the fulfillment (and operatively the replacement) of the Old Testament, the Jewish world creates a new system of Rabbinic Judaism that accomplishes the same thing by a different route. Like the New Testament, the Mishnah cannot afford doctrinally to discard the Old Testament. Both insist that the Old Testament is divinely authored (and authorized), since neither could set aside the idea of a perfect, infallible revelation. But, like the New Testament, the Mishnah insists that it (and only it) is the true interpretation of the “voices” of the Old Testament — and then, like the New Testament, it proceeds to limit those voices for all time.

So I would re-frame this (wrong) question:
“As a religion, why is Christianity so much kinder and more loving that Judaism, which by contrast is sterner and more legalistic?”
The right question is,
“Why is it that, in the space of a scant millennium, religious authorization moves from the auditory reception of articulated voices, to the idea of an indwelling spirit whose essence is revealed in the written word (and, in the process, in the specific de-authorization of all future ‘voices’ as sources of binding religious belief and/ or law)?”

Neither the New Testament nor the Mishnah/ Talmud will admit that it is a new religion: both Christianity and Rabbinic (modern Orthodox) Judaism claim that they are simply fulfillments of the Old Testament. This is philosophically untrue (modern Orthodox Judaism has very little in common with Old Testament Judaism), but strategically effective (and successful, historically, in terms of survival).

My Preoccupied Mind: Blogging and Research

I haven’t been posting as much to my blog lately. I wanted to explain my reasons, in case anyone cared to know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some related things.

A while back, I started a post about the radicalism of the Enlightenment. Many people, especially conservatives, forget how violently the traditional social order was overturned, in order to create the world we know today. Modern capitalist society may be many things, but it has nothing to do with any traditional social order and the same goes for modern conservatism that aligns itself with capitalism.

That led me to other topics. I was reminded, among other things, to some of my earlier thinking on the Axial Age, Julian Jayne’s breakdown of the bicameral mind, etc. I’ve always sensed a hidden connection between that earlier era of transformation and the radicalism of the Enlightenment, the latter being a greater expression and fulfillment of what first emerged more than two millennia ago.

With all of that in mind, I was looking many different articles and books. My curiosity has been in full gear ever since. I’m in research mode, which for me can be quite an obsessive and time-consuming activity.

This was made worse because I got into a discussion about shame. While putting the radicalism post on the back burner, I looked into this other topic, as I had never explored it before. It turned out that shame is a lot more fascinating than I had considered.

My investigation into the meaning of shame once again led me back in the same direction that the issue of radicalism had brought me.

Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures.

Connected to these thinkers, I was reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes the World. I realized a connection to my own speculations about symbolic conflation, about which I recently wrote a post. I explored that in a fair amount of detail, but it only touched upon one area of my mind’s focus as of late.

As you can see, I was exploring the connections of scholarly thought, but also the connections of different time periods. The past speaks to the present, whether the past of centuries before or millennia before.

At the same time, I feel like I have a family obligation to finish up the genealogy research I started years ago. I got distracted by other things. I do enjoy genealogy, but it is difficult and requires total focus. I have barely even started on my father’s side of the family.

I have my hands full. I enjoy blogging and will continue to do so, but it might be sporadic in the immediate future. I’m not sure what I might blog about, when I do get around to it. I’m known for being easily distracted and writing about such distractions.

Making Gods, Making Individuals

I’ve been reading about bicameralism and the Axial Age. It is all very fascinating.

It’s strange to look back at that era of transformation. The modern sense of self-conscious, introspective, autonomous individuality (as moral agent and rational actor) was just emerging after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. What came before that is almost incomprehensible to us.

One interesting factor is that civilization didn’t create organized religion, but the other way around. Or so it seems, according to the archaeological evidence. When humans were still wandering hunter-gatherers, they began building structures for worship. It was only later that people started settled down around these worship centers. So, humans built permanent houses for the gods before they built permanent houses for themselves.

These God Houses often originated as tombs and burial mounds of revered leaders. The first deities seem to have been god-kings. The leader was considered a god while alive or spoke for god. In either case, death made concrete the deification of the former leader. In doing so, the corpse or some part of it such as the skull would become the worshipped idol. Later on it became more common to carve a statue that allowed for a more long-lasting god who was less prone to decay.

God(s) didn’t make humans. Rather, humans in a very literal sense made god(s). They made the form of the god or used the already available form of a corpse or skull. It was sort of like trapping the dead king’s soul and forcing it to play the role of god.

These bicameral people didn’t make the distinctions we make. There was no clear separation between the divine and the human, between the individual and the group. It was all a singular pre-individuated experience. These ancient humans heard voices, but they had no internal space for their own voice. The voices were heard in the world all around them. The king was or spoke for the high god, and that voice continued speaking even after the king died. We moderns would call that a hallucination, but to them it was just their daily reality.

With the breakdown of the bicameral mind, there was a crisis of community and identity. The entire social order broke down, because of large-scale environmental catastrophes that killed or made into refugees most of the human population back then. In a short period of time, nearly all the great civilizations collapsed in close succession, the collapse of each civilization sending refugees outward in waves of chaos and destruction. Nothing like it was seen before or since in recorded history.

People were desperate to make sense of what happened. But the voices of the gods had grown distant or were silenced. The temples were destroyed, the idols gone, traditions lost, and communities splintered. The bicameral societies had been extremely stable and were utterly dependent on that stability. They couldn’t deal with change at that level. The bicameral mind itself could no longer function. These societies never recovered from this mass tragedy.

An innovation that became useful in this era was improved forms of writing. Using alphabets and scrolls, the ancient oral traditions were written down and altered in the process. Also, new literary traditions increasingly took hold. Epics and canons were formed to bring new order. What formed from this was a sense of the past as different from the present. There was some basic understanding that humanity had changed and that the world used to be different.

A corrolary innovation was that, instead of idol worship, people began to worship these new texts, first as scrolls and then later as books. They found a more portable way of trapping a god. But the loss of the more concrete forms of worship led to the gods becoming more distant. People less often heard the voices of the gods for themselves and instead turned to the texts where it was written the cultural memory of the last people who heard the divine speaking (e.g., Moses) or even the last person who spoke as the divine (e.g., Jesus Christ).

The divine was increasingly brought down to the human level and yet at the same time increasingly made more separate from daily experience. It wasn’t just that the voices of the gods went silent. Rather, the voices that used to be heard externally were being internalized. What once was recognized as divine and as other became the groundwork upon which the individuated self was built. God became a still, small voice and slowly loss its divine quality altogether. People stopped hearing voices of non-human entities. Instead, they developed a thinking mind. The gods became trapped in the human skull and you could say that they forgot they were gods.

The process of making gods eventually transitioned into the process of making individuals. We revere individuality as strongly as people once revered the divine. That is an odd thing.

Paradigm Shift: Beyond Reform and Revolution

We need a miracle.

That is how I titled and concluded my last post. I did so a bit jokingly. It was an expression of how little we know about what causes social change. It might as well be divine intervention.

Although it was just a passing thought added to my otherwise serious analysis, I was trying to get at some kind of understanding. A miracle is a religious belief, a theological concept. The basic idea behind it is that god(s), saints or other supernatural beings may intervene on our behalf. The belief in a personal god who would intervene in human affairs became popular during the Axial Age. Before that time, the the great deities, the rulers of the universe were often portrayed as distant and aloof.

Speaking of D.M. Murdock’s scholarship, I previously explained that,

Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people.  With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god.  There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god.  It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis.

That is a very impressive transformation that happened and it was happening across many societies. This didn’t cross-cultural shift can’t be pinpointed to particular revolutions or reforms. It was a paradigm shift and it spread like a contagion, both its cause and origin being unknown. Now, that puts the American Revolution in perspective.

My interest in the history of religion precedes my interest in the history of politics and revolutions. This is how my interest in the Axial Age came about. In my last post, the focus was on social change and the relation between reform and revolution. I queried why so often reform always eventually fails leading to revolutions and those revolutions, even as they fail, force the reform that previously failed. This is fine. I say it is fine because it just is what it is and apparently can’t be otherwise. It’s just human nature on the collective level.

As this cyclical pattern has been going on for millennia, it seems doubtful it will likely change. Yet change happens across the long view of history. The Axial Age is probably the most important shift for all of modern civilization. I’ve hypothesized that the ensuing history was a playing out of this worldwide transformation of human society: personalizing of religion, universalizing of theology and politics, Arabic math and science, European Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, English Civil War, Revolutionary Era, globalization of imperialism, multiculturalism of colonialism, pseudo-scientific racialized slavery, and on and on.

I still don’t think the Axial Age transformation has yet played itself out. When this old paradigm creates problems so massive that they can’t be solved within that level of understanding, human society will either shift once again to some yet unknown paradigm or else self-destruct. That is why we need more than reform or revolution. We need a change that comes from a ‘higher’ level of thinking and functioning. Something that, from our limited perspective, would be akin to a miracle.

This puts us in a special position. During the Axial Age, people including the prophets lacked such broad historical perspective and understanding. We instead are facing the possibility of a paradigm shift with, if we choose, awareness. That could make all the difference. Maybe we don’t need to be stuck in cycles or be passengers of history passively waiting upon the future.

Our fate will be decided by the choices we make, not just or even necessarily in what we do but how we see, think and feel. Once you realize you are in a reality tunnel, you don’t need to know what is outside of it. All you have to do is look for an opening.

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

There are two historical periods that have interested me for a long time: the Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age.

We speak of these modern times as if there is something fundamentally different about society today, but I feel unconvinced as I look about the world. I often get this sense of how primitive humans still are with only a veneer of civilization.

This brings me to my fascination with history. The past isn’t really in the past. History is the act of storytelling in the present. All the basic problems of humanity still exist and have always existed. The reason tumultuous events of bygone times fascinate us is because they symbolize the very issues with which we still struggle.

At the same time, there are societal shifts that are fundamental. I would add that there is no way of going back. But the shift I perceive is much larger than any given historical period. The Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age are the outward manifestations of this foundational reallignment. It comes down to civilization itself, specifically in terms of the the first cities and city-states as they developed urban infrastructures and cultures which in turn laid the groundwork for the first empires.

We are more or less the same as humans during other times in the development of civilization, but we are utterly transformed from humans prior to that. The Axial Age most clearly demonstrates this period of transition. It’s when all the problems of civilization and urbanization came to the forefront. It’s also when patterns were being set down that would lead to all later developments: Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment Age, Revolutionary Era, etc.

The Axial Age was more pivotal than even the Enlightenment Age. I’d argue that the Enlightenment thinkers were largely just responding to the ideas and practices first introduced during the Axial Age, although it is worthy of note that the Enlightenment Age allowed those ideas and practices to be taken to their next level. What the Axial Age prophets and philosophers offered to ensuing generations are such things as individualism, republicanism, democracy, anti-authoritarianism, universal truth, transcendent idealism, non-ethnic/non-tribal communitarianism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, scientific inquiry, rational thought, international trade, syncretism, etc; but also such things as monotheism and patriarchy.

We moderns, left and right alike, are the descendants of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment thinkers, radical and moderate, were descendants of the Axial Age.

So, this makes us all descendants of that first shift that began as civilization more fully took hold across all societies.

This shift has been continuing ever since and has yet to play itself out. I don’t sense that we’ve yet come to another era that comes even close to the vast significance of the shift that became so apparent during the Axial Age. What was started so long ago either needs to come to some kind of conclusion or else utter failure; then and only then will society be ready for something entirely new.

My most personal interest at the moment, though, is on a much smaller scale.  As can be seen from many recent posts, my mind has been overly focused on conservatives and liberals, even moreso than usual which is saying a lot. My focus has often been on what divides people in terms of ideologies, movements and predispositions. But thinking about the Axial Age reminded me of what unites all modern people.

I’ve thought about this most specifically in terms of America which is most representative of what it means to be modern, considering most Americans have so little sense of the larger past beyond the American Revolution. One implication of American history can be interpreted as a lack of having a tradition of conservatism. Those Americans claiming to be ‘conservatives’ tend to identify with classical liberalism or at least be heavily influenced by it.

The problem with this is that classical liberalism isn’t simply or directly opposed to modern 20th century liberalism. For one thing, later liberalism emerges out of classical liberalism (in the sense of classical liberalism being defined as all liberalism prior to the 20th century, including radical liberals such as Spinoza and Paine). For another, classical liberalism originated specifically in opposition to classical conservatism. Conservatives can’t simultaneously claim classical liberalism and classical conservatism, two mutually exclusive categories. American conservatives aren’t traditional conservatives or, to put it another way, their tradition of conservatism isn’t very old and is actually a reformulation of one variant of early liberalism.

In some ways, this is just an argument about terminology. But it is important because it is about the history of that terminology. I don’t care, in a practical sense, how others choose to label themselves. What I care about is the deeper meaning and values that underlie those labels. Liberalism by any other name is still just as liberal.

An obvious thing to note is that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in past centuries. So, we presently all are social liberals. It’s just that people who identify as liberals are slightly more socially liberal than people who identify as conservatives. Most of the things that conservatives opposed in the past have now become the social norms for modern Westerners and for much of the world as well. Conservatives no longer defend monarchy, theocracy, slavery, racism, genocide of the indigenous, etc; at least few do so fully and overtly. Traces of classical conservatism remains, but they are just traces at this point. Even fundamentalism is just another manifestation of modernity.

All of this can’t be denied, and yet most conservatives can’t accept the truth of it. They are caught up in the word ‘liberalism’, not looking beyond their own fearful projections to the actual meaning behind the word. That is the challenge. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral language to use. Instead of social liberalism, I could speak of social democracy. But that is problematic as well since social democracy has a history with socialism. Of course, we technically live in a social democracy already, whether or not conservatives realize this simple fact. America is a liberal society, in the basic sense of the word.

The Axial Age can be seen as the first time social liberalism manifested on a larger scale, even if it only looks like mere glimmerings by today’s standards. It took the Enlightenment and many revolutions to bring this emerging social liberalism to greater fruition. Even now, social liberalism can feel like it is barely limping along. The important part is that we’ve collectively come to see that social liberalism is of central value, no matter what terms we use to describe it.

I don’t know why the language aspect is such a stumbling block. I think that is why I was recently thinking about this in terms of the Axial Age. That earlier era came before such labels were invented, although I’m sure similar distinctions were beginning to arise back then.

Maybe if we liberals speak about social liberalism in the terms of the Axial Age,  then it will be more acceptable to conservatives. The Axial Age as the origin point of Christianity is less threatening, if anything the source of what many conservatives see of value. To find a shared language, we might have to step back in time before we can step forward.

The War on Democracy: a personal response

I wrote in my previous post about democracy, specifically the war on democracy. Both that post and this post are a continuation of my thoughts in my other recent posts: Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?, Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?, and Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?. The war on democracy is, in the final conclusion, a war on liberalism. Conservatives are often unwilling to acknowledge that America is a democracy at all. They think by denying the word they can make the reality go away.

I’ve been trying to grapple with the issue of ideologies and labels which can irritate me immensely at times. As a liberal, I often feel misunderstood living in a country where conservatism is portrayed as the norm, although the polling data seems to show that Americans are way more liberal than most mainstream pundits and politicians would prefer. To be a radically idealistic, freedom-loving, bleeding-heart liberal is to be forever discontented with the status quo of established power and authority, forever discontented with the forgetting of history’s horrors which leads to its repeating.

– – –

In my above mentioned previous post, I offered a simple answer to a problem often made complex by ideological debates and rhetoric. By offering that simple conclusion, I was questioning whether the problem actually was complex at all. Those with complex answers will seek to make the problem appear more complex than it is. As such, I was hoping to find the heart of the issue.

My basic point, in that previous post, was that democracy is more about people than politics, more about how humans can relate well to each other on the largescale of society. My suggestion was that, if we actually care about seeking solutions, we should begin with caring about people. Either you care about others or not. It’s that simple.

I’d also add that to the degree that you care about ideology (personal beliefs, political systems, religious dogmas, ethnocentric groupthink, etc) is the degree to which you don’t care about people. When we see people in terms of their place within society, as labels and categories, social roles and demographic data, as voters and citizens… when we see people as mere ‘other’, as strangers and foreigners, as objects and resources… when we see people as as ‘us’ vs ‘them’, as workers or unemployed, as rich or poor, as their religion or skin color, as part of or excluded from some group… when we do this, people become less in our eyes (and in our hearts). We lose our own humanity when we embrace labels and categories. And that is a very sad way to live one’s life.

This isn’t to say all labels and categories are always negative. They serve a function. In and of themselves, they are value neutral. However, labels and categories (when used without awareness and understanding) can easily lead to seeing the world through the filter of biases and preconceptions. This is how prejudice functions. Labels and categories are only dangerous when they are used in defense of an ideological worldview, a dogmatic reality tunnel.

– – –

In the rest of this post, I will continue some of those thoughts but in the context of more personal experience and feelings, along with some complaints, questions and ponderings of a less personal nature.

I acknowledge that everything I have written applies to myself as well. I’m all too aware of that fact. I know that I don’t live up to my own hopes and ideals. I often feel the attraction of what is offered by ideological righteousness, by ideological labels and categories. I feel weak in my sense of self and in my experience of the world. I feel weak because I feel isolated, because I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I don’t feel part of a community, that my life is integrally significant to the life of those I interact with on a daily basis. Even so, it may be true that I’m more rooted to the place I live in than many people (which, if true, is a sad statement about the lives of many people). I love this town where friends and family live, where I’ve spent much of my life (although with many intermittent years spent living elsewhere). But I always feel a bit disconnected, a blurring of the edges between myself and the world around me.

Modern life makes it more difficult to deeply connect (which causes many people to cling even more to artificial group identities). We have busy lives, each person isolated in their respective activities and goals. So many people spend their entire lives moving around from place to place… chasing careers, chasing dreams… seeking to escape the sense of dissatisfaction and unease that haunts the modern soul. I’m as much a product of the modern world as anyone else. I grew up in a family that moved on a fairly regular basis… and following that I moved around for a number of years.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to find a community to be a part of. I choose to live in this town where I’m surrounded by memories, a place that feels like home. During a period of my life, I sought to find my niche in this community. I went to many churches and found one I liked to an extent. I socialized and volunteered. I found people I connected with and made some new friends. But in the end the effort was too taxing for an introvert like me. It takes a lot of effort to try to create, almost ex nihil, a sense of community in the modern world. This town, for example, is a college town. It’s probably a majority of the population that either attends or works for the university and the university hospital. It’s a very transient population with very few people who were born here and lived their entire lives here. In a place like this, people come and go.

My life isn’t unusual and the town I live in isn’t atypical. Most cities in urban and suburban areas are to varying degrees like this town. Most people live in larger cities with transient populations and most people have moved a number of times in their lives. It’s just the social norm of modern life and of American society.

– – –

This is the challenge we face.

Most of the evolution of the human species happened prior to modern society and so human nature isn’t designed to work optimally in large societies with concentrated populations. Well, to be more accurate, the problem didn’t just begin with modernism for the world we live in is merely the outgrowth of the first civilizations. The Axial Age religions were a response to the early urbanization of human society… which was when the human species first had to deal with the conflicts of cultural diversity, with the disintegration of traditional lifestyles, with challenges to ancient religious authority.

The reason Buddha and Jesus preached universal love and forgiveness,  unreserved acceptance and compassion for all (even strangers, even criminals, even prostitutes… heck, even the rich) is because the rise of civilization was stretching the limits of human nature. Humans are mostly just capable of identifying with and sympathizing with a very small group of people who they know intimately. In many ways, this is as true today as it was millennia ago.

However, humans didn’t stop evolving after civilization began. If anything, evolution quickened because civilization allowed the simultaneous mixing of diverse genetics and the concentrating of certain genetics. We can see the results of this today with the fact that liberals tend to gravitate toward cities and conservatives tend to gravitate toward rural areas. There is a theory that liberalism is a newer trait in human evolution which intuitively makes sense to me and which seems to accord with some data I’m familiar with.

A major difference between conservatives and liberals, as shown in psychological research, is that: (1) the former tends to respond with fear and disgust when faced with the new and different, the unusual and foreign (one particular study showed conservatives feeling disgust toward rotten fruit which, from a liberal perspective, seems like an oddly strong response toward such a harmless object); and (2) the latter is more open to new experiences, new ideas, new possibilities and, as such, more sympathetic to the plights of those perceived as being outside of the norms and standards of any given society (strangers, foreigners, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, and the homeless; those who challenge authority figures, those who don’t submit to traditional rules of behavior, those who are ostracized, and those who are considered to be at fault for their own problems).

There is nothing wrong with the conservative attitude in and of itself. In a traditional society, such an attitude was beneficial and even necessary. But such an attitude, by itself or in aggressive opposition, doesn’t serve us well in a global society and we presently have no choice but to live in a global society, unless someone wishes to either seek the destruction of civilization or else colonize space. Even the few remaining isolated indigenous people can’t avoid the effects of modern society in that they are forced to drink water and breathe air that has become polluted, forced to depend on food sources that become increasingly scarce, forced to deal with new and deadly diseases introduced by foreigners, and are forced to constantly retreat from encroaching poachers, loggers, farmers, miners, missionaries, soldiers, bureaucrats, and others.

All humans (of all persuasions, in all places) are forced to adapt to a changing world. There is no conservative paradise where everything is frozen in some idyllic moment in time.

The Axial Age prophets like Jesus preached an essentially liberal vision, and radically liberal at that. Jesus was a leftwing loon of his era. The Axial Age prophets taught that we should treat all others as we would want to be treated; that we shouldn’t judge others according to ethnocentrism, class divisions, and other social norms; that one’s spiritual family was more important than one’s traditional nuclear family (that the water of baptismal rebirth was stronger than blood). The liberal ideals of egalitarianism and compassion (i.e., bleeding heart liberalism) are at the core of all civilization because only such ideals can counteract the negative side effects of building a civilization. Unless civilization collapses and we return to small traditional communities, we will have to come to terms with these liberal ideals.

– – –

This isn’t about liberal ideology defeating conservative ideology. I’m not saying conservatism doesn’t have it’s place, but I am saying that liberalism is increasingly necessary.

Even conservatives today are more ‘liberal’ than conservatives a few centuries ago. It’s all relative. Conservativism and liberalism exist on a spectrum which is always shifting. Conflict is only perceived when the middle of the spectrum is ignored and when history is ignored. The liberalism of one era becomes the conservatism of the next era. This is particularly confusing for American society. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”

American conservatives may be an extreme example, but they may not be highly unusual. Jesus challenged the conservatives of his day (the social norms, the political status quo, the traditional religiosity of Judaism, etc) and yet has been embraced by the conservatives of later generations. Once Jesus was dead, he was safe for being turned into an idol, sterilized of radicalism. Similarly, classical liberalism is safe for conservatives today because it’s an ideology from the past, i.e., a dead ideology. A liberal ideal or vision, if successful, eventually becomes a set of dogmatic beliefs or other ideological system. Once that happens, liberals leave it behind and conservatives will then defend it (as a defense against the next new thing that liberals seek out). As such, every conservative principle began as a liberal ideal because every tradition began as a challenge to a former tradition.

Liberalism ultimately isn’t ideological because ideology closes down the mind which is the opposite of the liberal impulse. Liberalism is the impulse toward ever greater inclusion, acceptance, and openness. This liberal vision is idealistic but it isn’t ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching politics. In fact, Jesus put no faith in politics whatsoever.

Maybe this is why liberal ideals can be placed in the context of any ideology, including conservative ideologies. The liberal impulse, by nature, will seek to expand any ideology to be ever more inclusive. Even the most righteously dogmatic Christian fundamentalism can’t entirely obscure the radical vision contained in Jesus’ own words and actions. Christians, no matter their ideology, can be inspired by these ideals. Liberals don’t own these ideals. This liberal vision isn’t liberal ideology. Liberalism, as a general concept, is defined ‘liberally’ because liberalism is expansive, ever reaching beyond divisions, reaching even beyond the status quo of liberal ideology. There is no and can be no definitive explanation of what liberalism is in specific terms for liberalism challenges limiting definitions, all definitions being limiting to some degree. The moment a liberal vision becomes an ideology it becomes less liberal, i.e., more conservative (to defend an ideology is to seek to ‘conserve’ that ideology).

That is the power of the liberal vision which is an inclusive vision, aspiring toward inclusion of all people even conservatives. It’s the same as Jesus preaching a universal message that applied to all people, even those who weren’t his followers, even those who actively opposed him (i.e., forgiving one’s enemies). There is no greater, no more radical vision of liberalism than this. And the most radical liberal vision of all is anarchism, both political and epistemological anarchism, because this is the extreme endpoint of the liberal desire for liberation, for liberty. Jesus’ refusal to acknowledge any earthly authority was a form of anarchism.

In the larger sphere of society, this liberal vision is basically the same as what is called ‘social democracy’. You can make it complicated with theory and with specialized terminology, but the ideals of freedom and egalitarianism are very simple. Even a child can understand these ideals. Even a child wants to be treated fairly. Children tend to be natural liberals because everyone is born with an openness to experience, a desire to explore, an endless curiosity. A child is just being a good liberal when he endlessly asks, ‘Why?’ And, when given an answer, asks ‘Why?’ again.

– – –

It might seem like I’m getting a bit abstract or speculative here, but this relates to the personal for me.

I’m someone with a liberal predisposition. I feel strongly and I empathize easily. I care about others, even random strangers on the street or in the news. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I don’t want to live in a society of blame, of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. I intellectually can understand that those with conservative predispositions are less likely to see the world this way, but in my heart I can’t understand.

From my (biased) perspective, liberal values seem to be the only way we will avoid collective self-destruction. Sure, if civilization collapses, the human species can return to it’s conservative roots. But I would hope that even conservatives aren’t seeking the destruction of civilization merely because it would benefit the predominance of the conservative worldview. It’s true that, during times of societal conflict and violence, the conservative worldview becomes persuasive and hence popular. However, any conservative who promotes a vision of conflict or incites violence in order to achieve this end has become cynical to the point of utter moral depravity. I hope most conservatives are above such realpolitik games of hatred and fear.

Also, I’d like to believe that empathy and compassion aren’t merely liberal values. Everyone has some capacity for empathy and compassion… well, everyone except psycopaths. It’s not that conservatives are heartless, but research has shown that conservatism as a trait predisposes one to have less capacity for empathy and compassion (relative to liberalism as a trait)… or rather they have a more limited, narrow focus of their empathy and compassion, less empathy and compassion for those not perceived as part of their group. But are these attitudes inevitable and predetermined? Are people just born one way or another?

The question is whether people, all people, have the potential to develop more empathy and compassion. If we are fatalistically determined by our genetics and our early upbringing, then maybe our only or best hope is that there will be an evolutionary leap. The problem is we can’t exactly plan for and depend on an evolutionary leap happening. But how else will change happen in society unless some fundamental transformation happens within human nature? Isn’t such a radical transformation what was being envisioned, even prophesied by some, during the Axial Age? Is there a way that we as a human species can manifest on a global level our potential for empathy and compassion? Is Jesus’ inspiring message of love a real potential or merely an empty dream? Isn’t there a way conservatives can maintain their conservative values while also stretching the comfort zone of their ability to empathize and be compassionate toward others, especially those different than them?

The conservative impulse is to identify with their group, their religion, their tradition, their culture, their ethnicitiy, their nation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I’d like to believe that this group identity can be expanded to include all humans. But do we have to wait for an alien invasion before we have an enemy ‘other’ that will force all humans to identify as a collective humanity with a collective fate?

– – –

This is the problem I face.

I can, like Jesus, preach about love and compassion. But, as a liberal, I’ll mostly be preaching to the choir.

Is there a way to translate liberal values into conservative terms? Is there a way to translate conservative values into a larger and more inclusive global context? I don’t want to blame conservatives any more than I want to blame the rich. I don’t want to blame anyone, to exclude certain people or groups (because they are different, because they don’t conform to my values, because they don’t agree with my ideology). However, what am I to do if, as a liberal, conservatives want to blame and exclude me? And what am I to do if, as a working class person, the rich want to blame and exclude me? How does one persuade others toward an inclusive vision if their own vision opposes it? If someone doesn’t care about the poor living in slums or oppressed people living in developing countries, I can’t force them to care. I have a hard enough time convincing myself to care and not give into cynicism.

I hate this situation. It’s the eternal conundrum of being a liberal, the desire for universal values that transcend mere ideology… while, no matter what liberals desire, conservatives will still just see it as liberal ideology for the lense through which conservatives see everything is ideology. Liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire to include those who desire to exclude you. The desire to treat others fairly and equally who don’t desire to return the favor. The desire to compromise with those who see compromise as moral weakness and failure. The desire for compassion even of those who choose prejudice and blame. Between openness and conformity, between idealism and ideology, why is it so often the latter that wins? I realize Jesus said my reward would be in heaven, but it would be nice to see a bit of heaven on earth.

I just don’t understand. Why are empathy and compassion often perceived by many as almost entirely exclusive traits of bleeding heart liberals? Why is unreservedly caring about others deemed to be a mere liberal agenda? And why do conservatives believe unreservedly caring about others will destroy society? Aren’t empathy and compassion traits found in all normal (i.e., psychologically healthy) people?

How can any ideology (whether religious, political or economic) be seen as trumping the basic human value of caring about others? How can conservative Christians continue to ignore Jesus’ message of love which, according to Jesus himself, trumps the oppressive Old Testament laws of hatred and divisiveness, of fear and vindictiveness, of blame and guilt, of retribution and scapegoating? Jesus never asked if the blind or sick person had the money to pay for being healed, never asked if people were deserving before he fed them, never asked if someone was to blame before dispelling the demons that were possessing them. Jesus simply acted compassionately in response to suffering. Jesus wasn’t acting according to ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching about meritocracy or a free market, wasn’t preaching about constitutional republics or political revolutions, wasn’t preaching about traditional values and norms.

Why aren’t there bleeding heart conservatives? Why do compassionate conservatives seem lacking in compassion toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their own ideological agenda? And, when conservatives do help those in need, why is their attitude typically that of condescension and superiority as if the needy person should feel lucky that the well off conservative didn’t leave them to starve to death or to freeze alone under a bridge? Yes, I’m speaking of the extreme variety of conservatives, but I speak of them because this is also the extremely vocal variety of conservatives who vocally defend conservatism.

If we as a society are going to ignore Jesus’ radical message of love, then we should stop calling ourselves a Christian nation (not that Jesus would approve of nationalism in any form, especially not in his name). If being a Christian nation wasn’t mere ethnocentric nationalism and instead meant being a nation of love and forgiveness, a nation of acceptance and inclusion, a nation of helping the poor and needy, then maybe I (along with many liberals, atheists, and non-Christians) wouldn’t take such issue with this prideful labeling of America.

– – –

It’s become increasingly clear, with events over the past decade, how interconnected is the global society. What one person, one group, one corporation, or one government does, effects people all over the world. We can’t continue to live pretending we are independent and isolated. We benefit and suffer because of the choices made by others. No one succeeds or fails simply based on their personal merits.

Poverty exists despite there being plenty of wealth in the world to allow everyone to live a decent life. Homelessness exists despite the resources being available to provide everyone basic shelter. Starvation exists despite there being enough food to feed everyone in the world. Many diseases continue to exist and proliferate despite there being known cures. The amount of money that the US government alone spends on international meddling (wars, military bases, CIA, propaganda programs, etc) probably would be enough to build schools, hospitals, health care clinics, and food banks in every city in the world. Most of the oppression and suffering in the world exists because of decisions made by other people, usually not by those who are oppressed and suffer. People born into poverty, homelessness, and hunger don’t deserve those conditions because of some personal failure. People living in war zones aren’t responsible for nations fighting over the resources that happen to exist in the ground beneath their homes. People born black in America aren’t to be blamed for the history of prejudice which is still being imposed upon them.

What we choose to do (what we buy, how we vote, who we donate to) or what we choose not to do (injustices we ignore, prejudices we accept, suffering we don’t seek to end) isn’t just a personal choice. Every action is public because the results of our actions are collective. We are forced to be responsible for each other, whether or not we accept that responsibility. If we walk past someone who is homeless or hungry, they remain homeless or hungry because we choose to allow such conditions to continue. We may not consciously realize we’ve made a decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that a decision was made.

– – –

I’m complicit in all of these failings and problems. That is what pisses me off.

I want to live in a society of people who care. I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It’s been said that we need to be the change we want to see. But I can’t get rid of the feeling that all actions seem futile, that nothing is ever going to change for the good. Despite all the superficial progress, the world just keeps getting worse in so many ways.

I’ve nearly lost all hope for the future, all faith in humanity. Part of me still wants to care and yet another part of me wants to give up. I just don’t know. What is the point? Change seems potentially so easy in that there is nothing stopping change besides ourselves (“We have met the enemy and he is us”). We are individually of no significance, but collectively almost anything is possible. The problem is that collective action too often is fueled by ignorance and fear-mongering, propaganda and herd mentality.

It may be true that, “United we stand, divided we fall.” But, even if united, are we united in anything worthy?

As someone raised as a Christian, how do I live up to Jesus’ radical vision?

As an American, how do I live up to Thomas Paine’s radical vision?

What can any of us do about such radical visions? What is the practical value of such inspiring idealism?

Innovation, Social Liberalism, Cultural Diversity, etc

Here is Steven Johnson speaking about his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I was watching the full version of this discussion at

I could go into detailed analysis about these ideas, but I just wanted to point out some related ideas.

Johnson’s idea that cities have been the breeding ground of innovation because of all the social mixing. This seems to have started most clearly during the Axial Age when cultures began mixing like never before. Also, I’ve seen research that shows people who grow up with multiculturalism become more socially liberal as adults. There is something about being socially liberal, also supported by research, that relates to the trait of ‘openness to experience’ which is an attitude of being open to what is new, including new ideas and new ways of thinking. Interestingly, I’ve read that paranormal experiences are most often reported (more often experienced?) along the coasts and major cities (i.e., where liberals are concentrated)… and some research shows that religiosity is opposed to supernatural experience.

Some other related ideas and issues are America as a melting pot, the rise of the creative class, an increasingly global society, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, religious syncretism, paranormal experience. Et Cetera. I’m sure much else could be added.

Anyway, the central point in my mind is that the liberal vision of society has it’s benefits. One thing Johnson points out is that many of the American Founders were part of the cultural mixing that was going on in Europe (Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson all traveled in Europe). Specifically, Johnson points out the coffee houses that were popular in European cities at that time. These coffee houses were where people and ideas mixed together. As we all know, this led to much revolutionary fervor in the New and Old Worlds.

Against Individualism

I suspect modern individualism is a cultural artifact rather than being inherent to human nature. It was taken to an extreme with Western Civilization and in particular capitalism, but it seems to have it’s origins with the Axial Age. Julian Jaynes proposed the theory that earliest literature such as from the Greeks doesn’t show signs of individualism as we know it. Modern individualism is based on the idea of an objective world of objects, but early humans experienced the world animistically.

I’ve noticed that the objective world of objects is particularly appealing to conservatives. Many conservatives use capitalism as a metaphor for all of life. They see life as a meritocracy where everything has to be earned. They see the fundamental fact of life is ownership where all the world can be owned and where people even own themselves and can sell themselves to the highest bidder. According to this view, anything that doesn’t have monetary value has no ‘objective’ value.

I’ve been in a number of arguments with conservatives who believe individualism is the basis of all reality. Their ultimate argument is perceptual. They see a world of separate individual objects including humans, but they don’t seem to be able to see their own cultural biases. Many conservatives seem less aware of factors that are subjective and intersubjective which has always bewildered me. I’ll bring up social science research, but to many conservatives such research seems irrelevant or somehow missing the point. To me, it just makes sense.

Even though I don’t think individualism is inherent to human nature, I do think there are psychological predispositions that make one more likely to accept the cultural biases of individualism. For example, Ernest Hartmann has done research on boundary types. Thick boundary types tend to experience the world in terms of separation: between themselves and others, between waking and sleeping, between past and present, etc. They have minds that tend to narrowly focus excluding everything outside of that focus.

Conservatives tend to mistrust the subjective and the intersubjective, the abstract and the theoretical. They tend to trust what is practical, concrete and tangible. They tend to want fundamental truths and rules.

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The first video about individualism seemed to have some connection to another video I just watched. In the following video, UFOs are discussed in terms of perception of reality. Maybe part of the connection I sensed relates to Jung’s having written a book about UFOs in terms of mandalas as a symbol of the self. Jung saw UFOs, whether real or imaginary/imaginal, as being manifestations within human experience of a symbol of wholeness.

This is part of Jung’s theory on individuation. Modernism has created an individual sense of self that is disconnected from the world. The fears brought on by globalization and world wars has forced a creative tension where the human psyche is seeking a new experience of wholeness.

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I have one last point. All of this isn’t just philosophizing about humans and society. There is obvious relevance to politics, economics, and environmentalism. The latter I pointed out in a post about capitalism having failed in the past in terms of taking into account the values and costs that aren’t easily measured by ‘objective’ and monetary standards.

There are collective costs to modern civilization that require collective solutions. This isn’t idealistic. I just came across this next video which explains the practical potential of collaboration. The competitiveness of individualism is no longer working, if it ever did work, now that populations have become so large and concentrated and now that diverse societies have become so interrelated.

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Here are some posts that relate in various ways to the above videos and comments: