Tuesday, September 17, 2019

In the Beginning Was the Word

John1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans.

Armstrong states that “Aryan” was not a racial term, but as “assertion of pride,” something like “noble” or “honorable.”  They shared a common culture; they spoke a language that would be the basis for several Asiatic and European languages, hence the term “Indo-European.”

By the middle of the third millennium BC they migrated farther afield, to what is now Greece, Scandinavia, Italy, and Germany.  Some would also migrate to what is today India.  Their lifestyle is described as quiet and sedentary: farmers and herders; limited in travel as the horse was not yet domesticated.

The Aryans were a hard-living, hard-drinking people who loved music, gambling, and wine.  But even at this very early stage they showed spiritual genius.

Like many other peoples, they found their religion in the storms, winds, trees and rivers.  They had gods, many gods.  They held tight to a sacred order – one that would be familiar to a student of the European Middle Ages:

People had to make firm, binding agreements about grazing rights, the herding of cattle, marriage, and the exchange of goods. 

The words that stood for this sacred order could be translated “loyalty, truth, and respect….”

These gods supervised all covenant agreements that were sealed by solemn oath.  The Aryans took the spoken word very seriously.  Like all other phenomena, speech was a god….

There was a potency that held the world together, a divine order translated into human speech.  The Aryans did not make effigies of their gods, instead they found that the act of listening brought them closer to the sacred.

Similarly, a vow once uttered, was eternally binding, and a lie was absolutely evil because it perverted the holy power inherent in the spoken word.  The Aryans would never lose this passion for absolute truthfulness.

I would say not.  One could write these same words covering the Europe of the Middle Ages (populated by tribes with these same roots) several thousand years later.

Communion, sacrifice, a creation myth – they had it all, except for the everlasting life part; this would come by the end of the second millennium.  Until then, the benefits of religion were purely material and this-worldly. 

The slow and uneventful life would come to an end around 1500 BC.  They began to trade with more advanced societies south of the Caucasus.

They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and also encountered new methods of transport….

Wooden carts pulled by oxen; chariots – awaiting the taming of the horses.  Weapons plus mobility equals a new warrior race.  For some, the violence went hand-in-hand with religious enlightenment.

…by linking their earthly battles with their divine archetype, they made them holy. …a warrior who died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods.

There were those who could not stand this warrior environment.  Zoroaster and his followers looked to their god, Lord Mazda.  Mazda and his immortals would one day descend to the world of men and offer sacrifice.  There would follow a great judgement, after which the wicked would be wiped off the face of the earth.  A blazing river would flow into hell, incinerating the Hostile Spirit.  After this, the cosmos would return to its original perfection.  Man would live with the gods; there would be no more death; humans would be free from sickness, old age and mortality.

This apocalyptic vision is quite familiar to us, but Zoroaster got there first – there was nothing like this in the ancient world.

It was in China where an ethical ideal was introduced into religion – integrating the numinous and the ethical.  Heaven was not just after the slaughter of pigs and oxen, but was concerned with compassion and justice.  Heaven would not support a ruler who was selfish, cruel, and oppressive.

Paul VanderKlay has offered that the numinous without the morality goes to barbarity and hedonism; morality without the numinous will get stuck in a cold moralism.  They need to go together.

Meanwhile, the twelfth century BC brought a crisis to the eastern Mediterranean – the Greeks, Hittites, and Egyptians were plunged into a dark age.  Out of this came a new Greek civilization and a small tribe – Israel. 

Those early years for Israel were violent – violence delivered to Jericho and to Canaanites.  Yahweh is presented as a warrior – a not uncommon view at the time by many tribes of their gods. 

Exodus 15: 3 The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.  6 Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power.  Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.  7 “In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you.  You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.

Yahweh shook the earth, quaked the heavens – mountains would melt before Yahweh.

Exodus 15: 15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; 16(a) terror and dread will fall on them.  By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone…

By the beginning of the first millennium BC, the old governance order of judges was deemed insufficient for Israel – the people demanded a king.  God allowed their desire, albeit with strong warning.

The Greeks, the fourth of these Axial peoples, had yet to emerge from their dark age.  The Axial Age had not yet begun – the period until about 900 BC was merely to set the stage for this important transitional period in religious history and foundations for meaning.


A few thoughts: the spoken word was fundamental to the Aryan tribes; while Armstrong will focus on those Aryan tribes that went to the southeast into India, it is from this same source – and we see the same cultural tradition – in the Germanic tribes that moved into Europe during and after the Roman period.

It was in China where the ideas of spirituality and morality were merged – prior to this and elsewhere, we had barbarism and hedonism, as the spiritual existed without a moral content.  Today we pretend to have a moral content without spiritualism – we see the mess of this.

Finally, Israel.  Suffice it to say that the Old Testament prophets had it right when looking forward to the Messiah, and Jesus had it right when He said that He came to fulfill the law.  To say anything more would get complicated on many levels.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

All Men Seek God

Acts 17: 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Paul is in Athens, debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  They hear strange ideas from Paul, and would like to understand what he means.  Paul remarks on their objects of worship, even with an inscription “To an Unknown God,” offering: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Paul continues, citing a seventh or sixth century BC Greek philosopher, Epimenides, with Paul offering the last line of what is this longer passage:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides is writing of Zeus; Paul suggests that he was, in fact, in search of the one true God.

Paul also cites Aratus, offering the last line from this longer passage:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring ...

Paul certainly knew his Greek philosophy.

In this book, Armstrong sets out to describe what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, a period from about 900 to 200 BC.  This was the time of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

C.S. Lewis has also examined this wide swath of philosophy in the Appendix to his short book, The Abolition of Man.  He offers numerous illustrations of Natural Law to be found in history and in many cultures: ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Chinese, Old Norse, Babylonian, Roman, Hindu, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Australian Aborigines.  As offered in Ecclesiastes 3, God has set eternity in the human heart – every human heart.  All men seek God.

Returning to Armstrong: The Axial Age was the time after the end of the Bronze Age, a cataclysmic upheaval of the prior order resulting in the struggle throughout the Eurasian world for a new order.  She describes the period:

The Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical, and religious change in recorded history…

She claims that we have yet to surpass the insights of this Age – in times of spiritual and social crisis, men have turned back to the wisdom of this Age – and of the wisdom that came out of this Age, to include Christianity.

The wisdom of this Age was to be found in the doing, not in the believing.  What mattered was behavior, which would then transform belief:

The only way you could encounter what they called “God,” “Nirvana,” “Brahman,” or the “Way” was to live a compassionate life. …First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought.

I know that this will raise controversy among and between various Christian denominations, mostly depending on how firmly one stands on the idea of total depravity.  I will only suggest: Armstrong is writing a book covering traditions far wider than Christianity – and, obviously, that pre-date Christianity; she is not attempting to settle an unsettle-able theological controversy.  Nor will I do so here.

All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness. …Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

Armstrong here cites what I have come to know as the Silver Rule – a rule that is far closer to the non-aggression principle than is the Golden Rule.  Certainly, as she includes characteristics of empathy and compassion, she is describing what most have come to know as the Golden, not Silver, Rule.

If the wisdom of this Axial Age can be summarized in one word, that word would be love.  Love is not a feeling or emotion; love is to be found in doing.

There are some slants that Armstrong takes in the book with which I disagree; however, my purpose is not to examine these.  I will remain focused on the passages I find valuable toward an understanding of man’s meaning and purpose, with the ultimate objective of supporting Natural Law and the liberty derived from this.


All men seek happiness. This is without exception. …And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look.

We must keep in mind that true happiness is not to be found in today’s superficial understanding of the word; it was always considered beatitudo – the happiness that comes from serving others; other-regarding action.

After describing man’s efforts to achieve happiness without faith, he concludes:

But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

There is a common ethos to be found throughout the thoughts and beliefs of people around the world; this was found in the philosophical traditions throughout Eurasia during this period to be examined by Armstrong, this period known as the Axial Age.

While working through this book, my primary focus will be on the Western tradition although I will include examination of these other traditions in order to support this view that the Golden Rule is common to all men, and that all men seek God.

As it has developed in the Western tradition, we walk a line that takes us through Plato and Aristotle, Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas.  It is a line that leads us to Natural Law – a Law necessary if one is to speak of Natural Rights and the liberty that requires these.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions.

-          Aristotle, Metaphysics

Miracles, C. S. Lewis

What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.  It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.

I am not quite sure what I am going to do with this book, at least within the context of the general direction this blog has taken.  On the surface, writing one way or another about miracles seems outside the scope of this blog, even as widely as I have exercised this scope.

Yet, I am finding something in this book on the idea of naturalism and supernaturalism (as Lewis puts it), and Lewis offers food for thought on the idea that there is Natural Law that derives from a source above man, a Natural Law that takes its form from the ends or purposes of man.

This as opposed to the naturalist view, that we are nothing more than atoms randomly smashing together (as the purest form of naturalism offers).  In such a case, we have no basis for Natural Law, nor do we have a basis on which to suggest any law regime is better or worse than any other – or why we should have any law at all. 

Lewis defines these terms:

Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature; I call these people Naturalists.  Others think that besides Nature, there exists something else; I call them Supernaturalists.

Beyond this, precise definitions are difficult to come by.  Some Naturalists consider as Nature anything that can be identified by the five senses.  Yet, we cannot perceive our own emotions in this way, yet these certainly seem ‘natural.’

Lewis offers his working definition: “…Nature means what happens ‘of itself’ or ‘of its own accord’: what you do not need to labour for; what you will get if you take no measures to stop it.”

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord.

Every event happens only because some other event has preceded it.  Lewis offers that the thoroughgoing Naturalist must, therefore, exclude even the possibility of free will.  Free will suggests that it is possible that something happened outside of what would have happened if things were left to go on their own.

The Supernaturalist agrees that there must be something which exists in its own right, some basic Fact which is itself the ground or starting point of all explanations; this is the One Thing, basic and original, existing on its own.  From this One Thing, there comes a second set of things, all caused by the One Thing; they exist because the One Thing exists.

The difference between the two views might be expressed by saying that Naturalism gives us a democratic, Supernaturalism a monarchical, picture of reality.

I find this striking.  If I may make a broad generalization: the left (naturalists) discounts tradition, including religion, and it praises democracy as proper for ‘equal’ men; if it is all just random, then why not?  The right (supernaturalists) respects tradition and religion and understands that natural hierarchies among men are both real and valuable.  This point is worthy of a more complete treatment than I will give it here; I may come back to it in the future.

What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.

For the theist – the believer in the Supernatural – the reason of God is older than Nature, it precedes nature; from God’s reason, the orderliness of nature is derived.  “Reason is given before Nature and on reason our concept of Nature depends.”

Throughout thousands of years of European thought, it was held by most that Nature – certainly a thing that exists – did not exist in its own right, but was a thing dependent for its existence on something else.  It seems to me that this can be taken a step further: for thousands of years, there was no meaningful concept of a separation of the Natural and the Supernatural: the metaphysical wasn’t thought of as something separate from the physical – no one thought in such terms.  Science (as we moderns consider the term) was not something distinct from philosophy or theology; it was all just science.  More accurately, it was all philosophy (I still think about why all such educated people – even in hard sciences – earn a Ph. D., a doctor of philosophy).

…the understanding of a machine is certainly connected with the machine but not in the way the parts of the machine are connected with each other.

The distinction to be made is not one between mind and matter, but between Reason and Nature.  It is our Reason that enables us to alter the course of Nature.  This is a one-way street – Nature is powerless to produce rational thought:

…not that she never modifies our thinking, but that the moment she does so, it ceases (for that very reason) to be rational. …Nature can only raid Reason to kill; but Reason can invade Nature to take prisoners and even to colonise.

If Nature had her way, we would have nothing we might consider human life – no furniture, no books, no washed hands.  Man, through Reason, has colonized Nature; much of the rest of creation (far outside the scope of this blog, any discussion about higher and lower forms of non-human animals) acts “naturally”; it goes of its own accord, as it must.

John Vervaeke, in discussing Descartes – considered one of the pillars of the idea of rationality – offers that many of today’s defenders of pure rationality ignore Descartes’ foundation for rationality: normativity (how things ought to be), meaning, and purpose are all central to reason.

We know how Descartes would feel about today’s such materialists, because he said the same about Hobbes in his time, through their correspondence.  It was as if Descartes was saying…Hobbes, you idiot.  You can’t have a material reasoner.