Monthly Archives: January 2018

Augustine’s Secret Sin

I’m curious: what do you think of Augustine? Augustine of Hippo was an odd blend of saint and sinner. I don’t mean “saint” in the sense of being so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, but in the sense of having reputable and progressive ideas. For example, Augustine argued that science, such as it existed in his day, had to be taken into account when understanding Christianity. If the Bible’s account of creation didn’t match what we knew of the world, then literalism had to go—that kind of thing. This was quite liberal for someone in the fourth-to-fifth centuries. He believed in reason, to an extent. The sinner side of the equation goes beyond his Manichean days, however. The sins I’m referring to are his dangerous and long-lasting theological assumptions that’ve helped to hold back civilization throughout history.

It was Augustine, for example, who gave us the idea of original sin being involved in sexual reproduction. The church has always been cagey on why we should reproduce when the second coming is right around the corner, but Augustine declared that from our very conception (which he couldn’t understand scientifically) we were tainted with sin. But that’s not the particular sin to which I’m referring. Augustine also spread the persistent idea that curiosity itself was a sin. Christianity, in his view, was a “need to know” religion, and curiosity about the natural world could lead to uncomfortable answers. He held this in tension with his belief that we should accept what science teaches, but there were many questions, he decided, we simply shouldn’t ask.

Religions have often come to this crux. Science has a strong explanatory track record. Religion is frequently based on old texts, written in an age when science was but an infant. As the power of rationality grew, the role of miracles shrank. Over time the proof of theological structures began to crumble. And since life was all about correct theology, those edifices had to be shored up against the onslaughts of reason. If this sounds hopelessly outdated, I’ll have to confess that many of my students at Nashotah House believed reason was tainted by original sin. Augustine had the answers they believed; somehow rationality had stopped with him. Human curiosity, Augustine felt, was a sin. All questions should’ve ended with his arguments. It’s this kind of theological bravado that gets us into the mess we find ourselves in today. Voting blocs that never question what their religious leader tells them. Never curious enough to ask “Why?” Augustine was a brilliant man, in many respects. He was also a sinner of the highest degree.

Noah’s Phone

The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.

When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.

Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.

Devil of the Time

There can be little doubt that evil prospers. We’ve suffered through a year of an evil administration and we’ve seen the government increase the suffering of its own people in deference to the wealthy. And ours is only a mild case of evil. Jeffrey Burton Russell, over the course of some years, wrote three sequential books about evil. The first, The Devil, I reviewed last year. Having just finished the second, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition, it has to be said that the concept definitely evolves. The period between the New Testament and the fifth century was a rich one for diabolism. The writers of this period became increasingly theological in their efforts to make sense of what is obviously an unjust situation created by a theologically good God. These were inventive writers, if somehow less than convincing.

Russell is a careful explainer. He summarizes the views of the “church fathers,” pointing out where their logic fails. This isn’t some liberal trying to dis the Devil, however. Russell acknowledges that he believes a Devil of some kind must exist. Reason, however, must also be applied. It’s difficult to believe that people in the early Christian centuries were willing to take such leaps of logic. Of course, they didn’t have many options for opting out. God was the great explanation for so much of their world. Fitting an all-powerful deity into logic when there’s abundant suffering in the world requires a certain flair for casuistry. No matter how the equations work out, an all-powerful God can’t be all good, not in this universe. Speculation about the Devil, or Satan, ran logic through its courses. Who was this being, and how did he get to be the way he is?

The theologians argued without any glint of irony. This was serious stuff. The Bible, famously, has little to say on the matter. Early thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine had volumes to say on the subject. None of them came up with a workable solution. Logic and the Devil just don’t fit. Theology is always a struggle since it deals with intangibles. Laws of logic sometimes simply don’t apply. If the feeble human imagination can conjure a good world without needless suffering, one has to wonder, why can’t an almighty deity do the same? Is this a god of limited imagination or, as the classic theological chestnut puts it, one who sees more than humans do? You can ask, but you won’t receive an answer. The Devil, it seems, really is in the details.

March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.

Recognition

I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…

One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.

The Maelstrom

Some monsters can’t be destroyed. Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe had his demons, for sure, but the twentieth century took personal fear and made it universal. Atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction were concepts any of us born since World War II have lived under our whole lives. Kids in the 1950s were drilled in schools about what to do in case of nuclear attack. We didn’t have such drills in the ’60s, but the Fallout Shelter sign was still quite familiar and frightening in its frankness. There are people out there that want you dead, and we tend to elect them to positions of power. Duck and cover. It’s all in vain.

Then came peace. Ever so briefly. When I started seeing newspaper articles about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—not in my childhood, but just this week—I shuddered. We’ve apparently made no progress at all. When we’re all decaying corpses glowing eerily in the night there’ll be no point in figuring out who’s to blame. A species as endlessly inventive as our own spends its time and resources on distrusting, hating the other. “They” might get what’s ours. The acquisitive mind trembles. You see, there’s no end to the things you can own. As long as anyone else owns anything you can always hope to get it for yourself. Say you read the Bible and evangelicals will forgive you daily for breaking the tenth commandment. Just don’t let those foreigners have it.

Poe imagined nightmare worlds. Most of his stories, however, were on the individual level. Our monsters, on the other hand, are international in scale. Radioactive fallout with its slow decay and devastating effects on frail flesh may be the stuff of good horror, but they make for decidedly poor governance. Perhaps it’s no wonder that this comes up under a president who ran on a platform of hatred. Last weekend the people of Hawaii lived through fearful moments that were all too believable with the incompetent pretender of Pennsylvania Avenue. A man who can’t keep his tweet shut and who gets away with offenses that would easily impeach a democrat. I grew up watching Godzilla, the famed radioactive dinosaur, rising from the oceans to remind us of the consequences of atomic sins. For the too brief era of Clinton we felt that the world might be safe at last from such monsters. Problem is, some monsters just can’t be destroyed.

Peter and the Red Giant

Now that my book has been sent off to the publisher, I’m working on the next project. This one has me delving back into the Greek of the New Testament. It may be, some would say, that I’m no longer an expert in such things. Coming to Koiné Greek, however, after lingering among languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian, feels like coming home. It’s Indo-European, after all. One of the books I’ve come back to is 2 Peter. This is a curiosity among the canonical books. All but the most conservatively predisposed of scholars note that this little letter didn’t actually come from the Peter. The idea of using someone famous as a literary pseudonym was a well known and widely accepted practice in ancient times. In fact, the prefix “Pseudo-“ on classical writers is so common that I feel just a little self-conscious. Nevertheless, 2 Peter contains fascinating ideas.

The Bible was influenced, of course, by many outside sources. One of those sources was Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia. This came to mind because 2 Peter is the only book in the Bible that describes the end of the world as burning and melting. These ideas are tied to the purifying fire of Zoroastrianism. In that religion an evil deity, Angra Mainyu, corrupted this world. Fire, in Zoroastrian thought, is holy. At the end of time, when the blessed ascend to a heavenly mountain, a river of fire will pour down, burning and purifying the polluted earth left behind. The idea is powerful and evocative, and obviously some early Christian writers cottoned onto it. Including 2 Peter.

The idea, in the Bible, stands isolated in this one single book. The real concern of the epistle is false prophets, though. Still, the worldly should take note. The universe in biblical times consisted only of this relatively flat planet—which wasn’t even a planet then—with a starry dome overhead and a fiery Hell beneath. Ironically, 2 Peter’s end is similar to that predicted by modern astronomers. A star the size our sun will likely bloom out into a red giant, parboiling the earth in its death throes. Seems the Zoroastrians, and Peter, may have been correct after all. The thing is they both had an escape hatch that will only come with interplanetary migration, according to science. But then, all of this assumes there will be a world left after the Trump administration. And speaking of false prophets, I wonder what 2 Peter would’ve had to say about that?