Monday, September 30, 2019

The Awakening

NB: to properly understand this book and the time, I will be walking on some difficult terrain, especially when it comes to the Israelites and aspects of the Jewish tradition beyond that which pointed to Jesus.  I am not trying to understand or develop theology when I note the history: there is much of Old Testament Jewish history prior to the times of the prophets that is greatly similar to all Middle Eastern cultures of the time: wars, territories conquering and conquered, massacres, slavery, dislocation, etc., etc., etc.

Why do I point this out?  The Old Testament, absent that which points to Jesus, can be a history about any of the tribes and gods in the Middle East of the time.  Change the names and the victors, and it is the same story: my god is bigger than your god; god will lead us to victory in battle; god, why have you forsaken your people; god, why have you abandoned us?

In the beginning was the Word.  The Word became flesh.  This is unique.  In the Old Testament, it is what points to this Word that is unique – unique vs. other Middle Eastern religions and unique, to my knowledge, among any of the major religions around the world.  Without the Word, it is just tribes doing battle and hoping that my god is stronger than your god.


Armstrong turns to the ninth century BC, the time that straddled the aftermath of the collapse of the Bronze Age and began the journey toward the Axial Age.  Again, to pinpoint one particular time as the transition across four major cultures – Greek, Middle East, Indian, and Chinese – is painting with too broad a stoke.  In any case, let’s see if the picture is still worth painting.

First, the Greeks.  The collapse of the earlier Greek civilization left them in centuries of what Armstrong calls a dark age.  Now, as they were coming back to life (documented via trading with Canaanites, known to the Greeks as Phoenicians), a spiritual limbo remained:

…Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its Gods dangerous, cruel, and arbitrary…. Their rituals and myths would always hint at the unspeakable and the forbidden….

In the beginning there was no benevolent creator god and no divine order.  There were two gods, Chaos and Gaia (Earth).  They were too hostile to procreate, so they each generated offspring independently.  Children and grandchildren of the gods were born, some so hated that they were forced back into the womb.  Genitals cut off during intercourse.  Children swallowed such that they would not be able to succeed the parent in power and authority.  And these were just the offspring of Gaia!  So much for worshipping mother earth.

From Chaos’s clan came tales of abusing offspring and murdering of parents.  Banquet stews containing the bodies of the host’s sons.  Sacrificing children.  Meanwhile, humans are presented in myth as completely impotent.

But Greek rituals did also allow people to see that they could live through fear and pain and come out the other side; it was essential to not deny this reality of human suffering.  Greek ritual would end in katharsis (purification), the gods were appeased and the miasma dispersed.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, the Israelites were dealing with the might of the Egyptians – and benefitting.  They expanded into former territories of the Canaanites, destroyed by Egypt.  But there remained foreign gods, including Baal worship.  Yahweh was the most powerful God within the rivalries amongst the gods:

Psalm 89: 6 For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?  7 God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.  8 O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?

According to Armstrong, with the time of Elijah there was a turning: Israel’s God grew increasingly concerned about social justice, accusing the other deities of neglecting this duty.  It was not that this concept was alien to the Middle East; it was merely that the God of Israel was becoming more complete, obviating the necessity of other gods to complement Yahweh in this task. 

Israel was about to embark on a lonely, painful journey of severance from the mythical and cultic consensus of the Middle East.

The Chinese were also concerned about preserving the natural order of things via rituals, ensuring that human society would conform to the Way (dao).  Chinese would not be interested in a god who was entirely separate from the natural order; Heaven and Earth were complementary.

They saw a continuum between Heaven and Earth, a continuum with their ancestors.  They weren’t looking “out there” for something holy; they were looking to make the world divine.  When the king was on the right path, he opened the Way for heaven on Earth.  He would also conquer enemies and attract loyal followers; if he was not on the right path, his authority would become malign.

The right path offered a king with supreme power, but one not free to do as he would choose.  He had to follow the right path.  If he carried out the rituals properly, all things would be calm and docile.

During the third century BC, the Chinese philosopher Xunzi would look back to the earlier period and give some context and understanding to the meaning of the rituals:

“The mature person takes joy in carrying out the Way; the petty man takes joy in gratifying his desires.  He who curbs his desires in accordance with the Way will be joyful and free from disorder, but he who forgets the Way in pursuit of desire will fall into delusion and joylessness.”

And in two sentences, Xunzi has summarized today’s meaning crisis.

In India, the move was to take practices that might lead to violence out of the sacrificial rituals.  No harm or injury was to come to any of the participants.  It seems to strike a new meaning into the term “sacrifice.”  Someone who knew ritual science didn’t even have to attend the ritual sacrifice and still find his way to heaven!


So, where are we?  One might begin to find something approaching natural law in the Chinese concept of the Way.  One might also find something of the shape of natural law in the Greek path of confronting pain and suffering.

I would add that the Old Testament offered that man was made in God's image – something that I do not recall Armstrong having touched on.  But put all of this together, and some foundations of natural law are forming.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Reason vs. Faith

Or philosophy vs. theology.

"Philosophy and Martyrdom Tertullian and Justin Martyr," by Jean-Luc Marion (video).  I was offered this video via email.  In it, Marion presents the case that the distinction of reason vs. faith or philosophy vs. theology is an improper distinction.  The earliest Christian apologists argued philosophically, just as their non-Christian counterparts did.

This distinction is very much questionable.  Until the twelfth century, no Christian thinker has ever called what he is doing “theology.”

The word theology began to be imposed only the time of Abelard and Aquinas.  Why?  The word “philosophy” had begun to be used to distinguish from what we now call theology.  This can be tied to the rediscovery of Aristotle, among other reasons.

Marion looks at the intellectual strategy of Christians during the first centuries, in the time until Constantine.  Although Paul, in Romans and 1 Corinthians, offers that there is a distinction of what appears right to God vs. what appears right to man, this was not the strategy used by Christians in these early centuries when arguing regarding Christianity.  For this Marion looks to Justin Martyr in the mid-second century (who wrote in Greek) and Tertullian at the end of the second century (in Latin).

These early Christians used rational arguments in defense of Christians and Christianity.  This accords with Paul’s actions in Acts 17, when engaging with Epicureans and Stoics.  Marion cites a portion of 1 Peter 3:15, “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you…” but he then offers a better translation from the Greek: be ready for the apology (i.e. the argumentation) to anyone asking you for the logos (the reason) for the hope that is in you.  Christians are called to respond with rationality and reason.

What a Christian is supposed to do is to argue in favor of the logos.

Logos is translated into many words, among these “reason,” and “word.”  In the beginning was the logos – Jesus Christ.  It is fundamental to Christianity that Christians argue (offer apology) via the written and spoken word, based on reason.

Marion offers: a Christian, when under threat of persecution, is not to scream and yell, but to meekly offer: please let us discuss and be rational.  He comes to his first example, Justin Martyr.  He was born in Palestine; he was not a Jew, but a Greek and a Christian.  He made his living teaching philosophy, first in Nablus, Palestine, then in Rome.

Justin offered to argue with the emperor, Marcus Aurelius – described by Marion as “a bad philosopher who wrote in bad Greek and who slaughtered Christians.  He is not a good guy for me!”  Justin argued: you claim to be a philosopher; I am a professional philosopher.  Let us discuss in a serious way why you put to trial the Christians.

Right off the bat, he boxed Marcus in – flattering him as a philosopher king, in the tradition of Plato.  Further, it was clear that proper philosophy must be pious (moral, ethical) and be aimed at justice.  A crucial question even today: should philosophy be ethical or not?  What does it mean to have an ethical philosophy?  On what basis do we determine ethics?

So, Justin proceeded: we, the Christians, are sent to trial because we are said to be atheists.  But even before Christians, you accused someone to death for the crime of atheism: Socrates.  It was said that he has corrupted the youth – as you say about us – and because he was not paying his respect by sacrificing to the god of the city, as you also accuse us.

Plato, speaking for Socrates, offered: it is this accusation that has condemned many good men in the past and will also condemn many other good men in the future.  In other words, Christians are the new Socrates.  (This reference to Plato was apparently not made by Justin, but would have been known to Marcus.)  But we tell the truth; we are rational, you are not. 

You are in the process of committing the same blunder: when you condemn Christians, you are again condemning Socrates.  When you condemn Christians without good reasons – and you do not have good reasons – you condemn yourself.  So, we (the Christians) are the real heirs of Socrates: we tell the truth, we are more rational.  We are the keepers of rationality; you are not rational.

Robert Wilken comments on Justin, in his book The Christians as the Romans Saw Them; Justin is replying to the idea that Christianity was being viewed as a superstition, when he wrote:

“We cultivate piety, justice, philanthropy, faith and hope.”  This passage could have been written by the Roman moralist and philosopher Seneca.  From the side of philosophy, “religion never departs, nor piety, nor justice, nor any of the whole company of virtues which cling together in close united fellowship.”

Philosophy must be ethical, and is not separate from religion.  Justin Martyr goes further, presenting his conversion to Christianity as a conversion to philosophy.  Having examined the Stoics, Peripatetics, Platonists, etc., it was only when he met a man who introduced him to the Hebrew prophets that he found “this philosophy [Christianity] alone to be sure and profitable.”

Returning to Marion: Tertullian made similar arguments, but also advances his arguments into legal procedure.  He was a philosopher and a jurist.  Christians are the followers of the law, yet are being condemned just for being Christian – and for nothing else: as if to say “it is not legal that people like you be.” 

The modern equivalent is the idea of crimes against humanity: where people are prosecuted just for what they are, not what they do.  You know, where men are judged by the color of their skin, but not by the content of their character.  And where men are condemned simply for being…men.

But I digress.  Continuing with Tertullian: all that was necessary was for a Christian to admit he was a Christian; thereafter, he was sentenced to death.  Or, looked at the other way: you torture criminals to make them admit guilt; you torture Christians to make them deny guilt – the guilt of being Christian.

Wilken also comments on Tertullian, who argued that Christianity was a collegium, an association not devoted to political maneuvering or clandestine activities, but devoted to moral principles and training toward living a life of virtue.  Tertullian writes:

We are an association (corpus) bound together by our religious profession, by the unity of our way of life and the bond of our common hope… We meet together as an assembly and as a society… We pray for the emperors… We gather together to read our sacred writing… With the holy words we nourish our faith… After the gathering is over the Christians go out as though they had come from a “school of virtue.”

No one suffers harm from these gatherings, he concludes.  In his apology, he uses many technical and legal terms – reflecting his profession.  It was language that would be familiar to anyone in the Greco-Roman world – Christian or not.

Marion concludes: most arguments in the public square are not rational.  They are not arguments in search of truth.  They represent ideological points of view.  Truth need not be represented by either side, and often truth will not be accepted by either side.

It is quite possible that a rational position can be under attack from both sides.

Which returns us to the earlier questions: should philosophy be ethical or not?  What does it mean to have an ethical philosophy?  One can ask, on what basis is this to be determined?  Which brings us back to a standard, a foundation, a basis for objective law.  Which is relevant for anyone concerned with moving toward liberty.


As God is the author of reason and faith, philosophy and theology, why would any Christian agree to live with such distinctions?  It seems reasonable to suggest that one reason Christianity has lost its way (and has lost many in the West) is precisely because Christian leaders have accepted and even emphasized this difference.  “Oh, you just have to believe by faith; don’t ask questions.”  This is too often heard.

It is interesting that non-Christian intellectuals are making this connection once again.  I am thinking of Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke.  It is also interesting that this has led to an increase in interest in Christianity – although I think neither of these two have ever intended to increase church attendance.

It is the case: God moves in mysterious ways….

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Meta-Crisis

John Vervaeke lays out a summary of what is behind the meaning crisis, and offers a brief introduction on his view of the way through it.  He describes the meaning crisis as both the result and cause of the ecological, socio-economic and spiritual / existential crisis of our time.  The crisis is driven by attempts to create secular alternatives to religion. 

In the two dozen or so videos up to this point in the series, he has walked through the relevant philosophy and theology since recorded time.  By this point, and after introducing Hegel, he comes to World War One – rightly describing it as (in my words) the calamity that put the exclamation point on the destruction of the West that has been occurring since at least the Enlightenment (the killing of God).

What has the death of God left us with?

We now have complete politicization in the quest for meaning.  Perspectival knowing has been reduced to your political viewpoint; participatory knowing has been reduced to your political identification.

Perhaps unpacking these terms is helpful (certainly to me).  Perspectival knowing:

Perspectivism is the philosophical position that one's access to the world through perception, experience, and reason is possible only through one's own perspective and interpretation.

Nietzsche talks about ‘perspective’ when he is relating beliefs to our values (and hence to our instincts).

Participatory knowing appears to have once been wrapped up in the spiritual:

First, "participatory" alludes to the fact that spiritual knowing is not objective, neutral, or merely cognitive. On the contrary, spiritual knowing engages us in a connected, often passionate, activity that can involve not only the opening of the mind, but also of the body, the heart, and the soul. …Second, the participatory nature of spiritual knowing refers to the role that our individual consciousness plays during most spiritual and transpersonal events. This relation is not one of appropriation, possession, or passive representation of knowledge, but of communion and co-creative participation.

All authentic knowledge of God is participatory. I must say this directly and clearly because it is a very different way of knowing reality—and it should be the unique, open-horizoned gift of people of faith. But Christians have almost entirely lost this way of knowing, ever since the food fights of the Reformation and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, leading to fundamentalism on the Right and atheism or agnosticism on the Left. Neither of these sides know how to know!

Our perspective is political; our participation is wrapped up in the political.  We are reduced to a struggle of wills of political ideologies.  This view reminds me of a recent essay by C. Jay Engel, entitled Libertarianism’s Place In Society – tailored toward a slant on a libertarian’s view of society, but relevant to the reality that everything in society has been reduced to the political:

Libertarianism as a unifying spirit is only conceivable because we operate in a world that has experienced the imposition of a political society.

…it should be made clear that the only reason libertarianism as such seems to play such a fundamental role in the self-identity and life-meaning of so many in libertarian circles is due to the politicalization of society.

Returning to Vervaeke:

The only thing that in the past that has created systematic sets of psycho-technologies that transform consciousness, cognition, character, and culture in an interdependent way is religion.  Religion is the only thing that does this.

Read that again, then think about what happens when God is dead and we are reduced to nothing more than random atoms smashing together by chance.  What happens then to man’s meaning, purpose, or ends?  What meaning or purpose can one find in random?  So, what happens when man finds he has no meaning?  I think that would be called the meaning crisis.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we have tried to create alternatives to this – the pseudo-religious ideologies that have drenched the world in blood.

And we continue in the twenty-first century – even peddling many of the same alternatives while trying to dress these with a more appealing mask.  Perfuming a pig.

What do we do?  We need to respond to the meta-crisis, but we have been traumatized by the pseudo-religious ideologies.

He calls the attempt by some to return to religion as “nostalgic.”  Such as these attempt to ignore all of the history.  Let me get this right: in all of recorded history, only religion has served this function – but even those who recognize this, like Vervaeke, are looking for an alternative to religion…or desiring to create a new religion. 

Well…I will take nostalgia over those man-made “pseudo-religious ideologies that have drenched the world in blood” for the last two-hundred years.  But Vervaeke has a different plan.  His view is that we need a religion that is not a religion, a god beyond all gods. 

Over the next several lectures, he will describe how we can each reach this new level of self-transcendence – a religion that is not a religion.  This is also very much the project of Bret Weinstein, who – in this video – offers his version of a religion that is not a religion.  When it is suggested that he is proposing a new religion, Weinstein offers:

I would be careful.  It’s not a new religion; it’s something that sits in the same place.  It addresses some of the same needs. 

Wait!  What did he just say?  But it’s not a new religion?