14 December 2013

Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist Neuroscientist

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:21 pm

Despite the best of intentions, I keep finding myself drawn back into the ongoing kerfuffle surrounding novelist-blogger Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory. The core premise — that humans are unable through introspection to understand their own thinking — is undeniable, though I’d regard human self-reflexivity as correctably presbyopic rather than blind. I’m also okay with regarding mind as coextensive with neural activities centered in the brain and distributed throughout the body. And while I believe that people do formulate intentions and act on them, I’m also in agreement that intents, like other natural processes, are the effects of causes. (Of course, just because I give intellectual assent doesn’t mean that I renounce my self-image as fully autonomous free agent.]

While Bakker frames and buttresses his contentions primarily with his interpretation of contemporary neuroscience, the controversy has a long history. When I was back there in seminary school, most of my profs were Calvinists, and so was I. Predicated largely on the Pauline New Testament writings, the core contention of Calvinism can be stated succinctly: the person doesn’t choose God; God chooses the person. And yet isn’t it true that the sinner who comes to God acknowledges his depravity, repents, accepts the salvation freely offered through Christ’s death and resurrection? In other words, doesn’t salvation hinge on the sinner’s intention as an autonomous agent to choose good over evil? Sure, said Calvin, but that intention is the result of God’s grace working in the sinner, causing him to form the necessary intentions leading to his salvation. And that grace is irresistible: he whom God chooses to save will invariably and inevitably make the intentional act of choosing God.

Most Americans know Jonathan Edwards as the author of the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards wasn’t just a motivational speaker; he was also a theologian, and a great one. In his multivolume Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards set out to explain that human intentions and the will to act on them are, like other natural events, the effects of causes and therefore not free. In particular, intentions are shaped by motives, which may conflict with each other. Motives jostle for preference outside of the person’s awareness, with the winner “exciting” volition and shaping the will. Though he doesn’t use the term “unconscious” to describe this internal conflict among motives, that’s what Edwards is talking about.

Educated at Yale and an enthusiastic student of Enlightenment science, Edwards traces a trajectory that leads into contemporary neuroscience. I suppose you could say that, when it comes to intentionality, I’m still a Calvinist but without the overriding determinations of the Prime Intender.

Here are some particularly telling excerpts:


Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 1754


The activity of the soul may enable it to be the cause of effects; but it don’t at all enable or help it to be the subject of effects which have no cause… Activity of nature will no more enable a being to produce effects, and determine the manner of their existence, within itself, without a cause, than out of itself, in some other being. But if an active being should, through its activity, produce and determine an effect in some external object, how absurd would it be to say, that the effect was produced without a cause!

…The mind’s being a designing cause, only enables it to produce effects in consequence of its design; it will not enable it to be the designing cause of all its own designs. The mind’s being an elective cause, will only enable it to produce effects in consequence of its elections, and according to them; but can’t enable it to be the elective cause of all its own elections; because that supposes an election before the first election. So the mind’s being an active cause enables it to produce effects in consequence of its own acts, but can’t enable it to be the determining cause of all its own acts; for that is still in the same manner a contradiction; as it supposes a determining act conversant about the first act, and prior to it, having a causal influence on its existence, and manner of existence.


Tis a thing chiefly insisted on by Arminians, in this controversy, as a thing most important and essential in human liberty, that volitions, or the acts of the will, are contingent events; understanding contingence as opposite, not only to constraint, but to all necessity. Therefore I would particularly consider this matter…

To suppose there are some events which have a cause and ground of their existence, that yet are not necessarily connected with their cause, is to suppose that they have a cause which is not their cause. Thus, if the effect be not necessarily connected with the cause, with its influence, and influential circumstances; then, as I observed before, ’tis a thing possible and supposable, that the cause may sometimes exert the same influence, under the same circumstances, and yet the effect not follow. And if this actually happens in any instance, this instance is a proof, in fact, that the influence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. For if it had been sufficient, it would have done it. And yet, by the supposition, in another instance, the same cause, with perfectly the same influence, and when all circumstances which have any influence, are the same, it was followed with the effect. By which it is manifest, that the effect in this last instance was not owing to the influence of the cause, but must come to pass some other way. For it was proved before, that the influence of the cause was not sufficient to produce the effect. And if it was not sufficient to produce it, then the production of it could not be owing to that influence, but must be owing to something else, or owing to nothing. And if the effect be not owing to the influence of the cause, then it is not the cause. Which brings us to the contradiction, of a cause, and no cause, that which is the ground and reason of the existence of a thing, and at the same time is not the ground and reason of its existence, nor is sufficient to be so.


[E]very act of the will is some way connected with the understanding, and is as the greatest apparent good is, in the manner which has already been explained; namely, that the soul always wills or chooses that which, in the present view of the mind, considered in the whole of that view, and all that belongs to it, appears most agreeable…

I am sensible, the Doctor’s [Daniel Whitby, an Arminian] aim in these assertions is against the Calvinists; to show, in opposition to them, that there is no need of any physical operation of the Spirit of God on the will, to change and determine that to a good choice, but that God’s operation and assistance is only moral, suggesting ideas to the understanding; which he supposes to be enough, if those ideas are attended to, infallibly to obtain the end. But whatever his design was, nothing can more directly and fully prove, that every determination of the will, in choosing and refusing, is necessary; directly contrary to his own notion of the liberty of the will. For if the determination of the will, evermore, in this manner, follows the light, conviction and view of the understanding, concerning the greatest good and evil, and this be that alone which moves the will, and it be a contradiction to suppose otherwise; then it is necessarily so, the will necessarily follows this light or view of the understanding, not only in some of its acts, but in every act of choosing and refusing. So that the will don’t determine itself in any one of its own acts; but all its acts, every act of choice and refusal, depends on, and is necessarily connected with some antecedent cause; which cause is not the will itself, nor any act of its own, nor anything pertaining to that faculty, but something belonging to another faculty, whose acts go before the will, in all its acts, and govern and determine them every one…

And let us suppose as many acts of the will, one preceding another, as we please, yet they are everyone of them necessarily determined by a certain degree of light in the understanding, concerning the greatest and most eligible good in that case; and so, not one of them free according to Dr. Whitby’s notion of freedom…

If liberty consists in that which Arminians suppose, viz. in the will’s determining its own acts, having free opportunity, and being without all necessity; this is the same as to say, that liberty consists in the soul’s having power and opportunity to have what determinations of the will it pleases or chooses. And if the determinations of the will, and the last dictates of the understanding be the same thing, then liberty consists in the mind’s having power to have what dictates of the understanding it pleases, having opportunity to choose its own dictates of understanding. But this is absurd; for it is to make the determination of choice prior to the dictate of understanding, and the ground of it; which can’t consist with the dictate of understanding’s being the determination of choice itself.


That every act of the will has some cause, and consequently (by what has been already proved) has a necessary connection with its cause, and so is necessary by a necessity of connection and consequence, is evident by this, that every act of the will whatsoever, is excited by some motive: which is manifest, because, if the will or mind, in willing and choosing after the manner that it does, is excited so to do by no motive or inducement, then it has no end which it proposes to itself, or pursues in so doing; it aims at nothing, and seeks nothing. And if it seeks nothing, then it don’t go after anything, or exert any inclination or preference towards anything. Which brings the matter to a contradiction; because for the mind to will something, and for it to go after something by an act of preference and inclination, are the same thing.

But if every act of the will is excited by a motive, then that motive is the cause of the act of the will. If the acts of the will are excited by motives, then motives are the causes of their being excited; or, which is the same thing, the cause of their being put forth into act and existence. And if so, the existence of the acts of the will is properly the effect of their motives. Motives do nothing as motives or inducements, but by their influence; and so much as is done by their influence, is the effect of them. For that is the notion of an effect, something that is brought to pass by the influence of another thing.

And if volitions are properly the effects of their motives, then they are necessarily connected with their motives. Every effect and event being, as was proved before, necessarily connected with that which is the proper ground and reason of its existence. Thus it is manifest, that volition is necessary, and is not from any self-determining power in the will: the volition which is caused by previous motive and inducement, is not caused by the will exercising a sovereign power over itself, to determine, cause and excite volitions in itself…

There is such a thing as a diversity of strength in motives to choice, previous to the choice itself. Mr. Chubb himself  [Thomas Chubb, a deist] supposes, that they do “previously invite,” “induce,” “excite” and “dispose the mind to action.” This implies, that they have something in themselves that is inviting, some tendency to induce and dispose to volition, previous to volition itself. And if they have in themselves this nature and tendency, doubtless they have it in certain limited degrees, which are capable of diversity; and some have it in greater degrees, others in less; and they that have most of this tendency, considered with all their nature and circumstances, previous to volition, they are the strongest motives; and those that have least, are the weakest motives…

[N]ow if motives excite the will, they move it… And again (if language is of any significance at all) if motives excite volition, then they are the cause of its being excited; and to cause volition to be excited, is to cause it to be put forth or exerted… To excite, is positively to do something; and certainly that which does something, is the cause of the thing done by it. To create, is to cause to be created; to make, is to cause to be made; to kill, is to cause to be killed; to quicken, is to cause to be quickened; and to excite, is to cause to be excited. To excite, is to be a cause, in the most proper sense, not merely a negative occasion, but a ground of existence by positive influence. The notion of exciting, is exerting influence to cause the effect to arise or come forth into existence.

21 February 2013

Elohimic Systems Engineering

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 5:06 pm

[Just having a little fun now, writing along this afternoon on the current fiction, working title The Scriptorium…]

…There was a software engineer who before setting up residency had built a couple of automatic holy-poem generators that attained immediate popularity among the Pilgrims to whom he had demonstrated them over drinks along the Trails. Once he got settled in at the Scriptorium the engineer quickly got to work on what he termed an old-school elohimic expert system. From interviews with theologians, gurus, cabalists, and prophets he extracted a substantial body of godly insight, which he compiled as textual aphorisms and brief enigmata that he then programmed into the system’s knowledge base. In response to fairly complex Q-and-A sessions with spiritual seekers the elohimic expert system would automatically string together its fragmentary wisdom into multiple paragraphs of polytheistic revelation. It’s like a sophisticated Magic Eight Ball, the engineer scoffed as he scrapped the device, which had immediately attracted a strong following among the Pilgrims who had beta-tested it.

Next the engineer set about building an object-oriented elohimic system, or OOES. Instead of propagating the so-called sensual properties of hierophantic loci with which votaries typically interacted – words of holy texts, pictorial images of icons, architectural and topographic layouts of sacred spaces – the OOES was designed to manipulate the withdrawn essences of these spirit-objects. Almost invariably the user interacting with the OOES would receive in response to queries neither direct answers nor enigmatic ones but silence. Some Pilgrims spent weeks contemplating the system’s apophatic non-pronouncements; most headed on down the hallway after fifteen minutes or so…

2 June 2012

A Blog Post Returns from the Dead

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:15 am

Yesterday I was carrying two bags of groceries in from the car when I stopped dead in my tracks. There, lounging across the  top two steps of the front porch, was a bull snake. He was a robust specimen, at least five feet long and nearly as thick as my wrist. I showed him respect, going around to the back door. About ten minutes later he slithered off through the undergrowth. This morning I found myself thinking about the other time I posted about a snake encounter.

Most of my blog posts have a short halflife. People give each new post a look, then maybe they participate in or follow the discussion for a few days. After that the post sinks rapidly in popularity.

Then there’s the Ouroboros post.

I put it up mid-afternoon on 17 April, and it got 15 page views that day. The hits jumped to 105 the second day, then down to 68 the third and 46 the fourth. After that the post followed the usual pattern, with the hit rate dropping to 0-3 per day. Then the post rose from the dead. Traffic abruptly picked up again: 20 hits on the 18th day, 60 on the 19th, 38 on the 20th, 49 on the 21st. Since then the hit rate on this post has never dropped below 57. Yesterday, six weeks after I first put it up, the Ouroboros post was viewed 62 times; two days earlier there had been 104 hits.

While I think the post is a good one, I doubt that people are showing up because they heard about its merits through the grapevine. More likely people are googling the word “Ouroboros” and my post pops up. Is there some sudden interest in this fairly obscure term — has, for example, a movie or an album with that title recently been released? Not that I can see. Maybe there are lots of Gnostics and alchemists and Jungians out there looking for content. But that doesn’t explain why the post went dormant for two weeks before experiencing a renewal. Surely it didn’t take that long for the search engines to find it.

From Wikipedia:

The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end (compare with phoenix).

17 April 2012


Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:31 pm

[Ouroboros image by Saki BlackWing]

On my morning walk I saw a real live ouroboros. Well, it was real dead actually, lying right on my path. Stretched out straight the snake was probably less than a foot long. But it wasn’t straight: it was configured in a circle, the head just nudging the tip of the tail.

Maybe two years ago I was writing a scene in which a character stood in front of the bathroom mirror removing her gold necklace. I was trying to picture her taking it off. Would she slip it over her head? No: the chain wasn’t that long. A clasp then. What sort of clasp? How about a snake head biting the tail? Now I could picture this chain with the reptilian scaly golden skin slithering off her neck and coiling itself inside a gold mesh bag…

Three posts ago I wrote something about the Order of Melchizedek, where the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews sees Jesus foreshadowed in the legendary priest-king of Salem, mediated by a messianic verse from the Psalms. Earlier in this same epistle the writer executes the same maneuver: Jesus as fulfillment of an ancient legend, mediated by the Psalmist. This time though the sequence doesn’t just go back in time, because this time it turns out that the past is the future — a temporal ouroboros. Here’s how it works.

The writer of Hebrews is trying to show that Jesus is more powerful than the angels. Curiously, his argument isn’t predicated on Jesus being God, but on his being man. Here is Hebrews 2:5-9…

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,


For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9)

This looks like an apocalyptic prophecy in which Jesus the Messiah will one day come back to rule the world. The capitalized portion of the text cites Psalm 8, so we flip back from New Testament to Old to find the source document:

O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
          Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength
          Because of Your adversaries,
          To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
          The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
          And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God [or than the angels; literally than the gods],
          And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
          You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen,
          And also the beasts of the field,
The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
          Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
O Yahweh, our Lord,
          How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

The writer of Hebrews got the citation right, but in the original context the passage doesn’t seem to apply to some specific man but rather to man in general, to mankind. The Psalmist marvels at the magnificence of the moon and the stars, and then he turns his gaze on puny humanity. Why, he wonders, does God bother with the human race? Not only does He bother; He appoints man as ruler over the whole world, over sheep and oxen, beasts and birds and fish… And now it begins to dawn on the reader: haven’t I read this litany of creatures great and small before?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

This is day six from the Creation narrative. The writer of Hebrews points back to the Psalm, and the Psalmist points back to the writer of Genesis, who points all the way back to the beginning of time. But wait a minute. Go back to the Hebrews passage and its introduction to the Psalm quotation:

For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying…

“The world to come”? I thought that the Psalmist was testifying to the world of the deep and legendary past, when humans ruled the world, before Eve listened to the serpent and she and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and God threw them both out of the Garden. Is this the Hebraist’s story, that Jesus will restore to mankind the power and glory lost in the Fall? That’s not what he says:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.

“Not yet”? “The world to come”? Isn’t this writer, the author of a canonical New Testament text, saying that the Genesis 1 narrative refers not to the past but to the future? The world wasn’t created seven thousand years ago, or seven billion years ago. It hasn’t even been created yet.

Today we read a text written two thousand years ago, which cites a poem written a thousand years before that, which cites an even more ancient legend that goes all the way back to the beginning, and the beginning is in the future. Ouroboros.

8 April 2012

The Order of Melchizedek

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 7:38 am

Thou art a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek
– Psalm 110:4, quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews 5:6

Just for Easter/Passover, imagine that the Biblical texts are historically accurate. The Messiah was prophesied to be king of Israel; Jesus, being of the house of David and thus the tribe of Judah, could fulfill the criteria for being messianic king. But Psalm 110 presents a priestly Messiah, and according to the Law the priests must come from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. But the Psalmist clarifies: the Messiah is to be both king and priest, like Melchizedek, and Melchizedek’s priestly order is not predicated on being a Levite.

An enigmatic figure, Melchizedek makes his brief onstage appearance in the Book of Genesis, before the formation of Israel and long before the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt when Moses brought the Tablets down from Mount Sinai and his older brother Aaron established the Levitical priesthood. In Genesis 14 the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela are arraying themselves for battle against the kings of Elam, Goiim, Shinar, and Ellasar. After the four kings defeated the five in the tar pits of Siddim, the remnant of the conquered armies fled into the hills, taking with them their spoils and captives from the sack of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had been living in Sodom at the time. When word reached Abram he marshaled his trained men, three hundred eighteen in number, and defeated the straggling captors, pushing them back to the north beyond Damascus.

And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people. Then after his return from the smiting of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tenth of all. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to Yahweh God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshol, and Mamre; let them take their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24)

Melchizedek was king of Salem, which I had always presumed was one of “the nations” later positioned in contrast and opposition to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. After doing a bit of investigation I discovered that in all likelihood Salem = Jerusalem (Psalm 76:2), a city that was ancient even back in Abram’s time. Melchizedek was both king of Salem and priest of “the God Most High” whom Abram also served.The land that Yahweh promised to Abram and his seed was situated in the shadow of a capital city that already honored Yahweh. A footloose Babylonian, Abram had by this time settled in Canaan for the second time, so he would have been familiar with Salem, by reputation if not by direct experience.

So here’s something I’d never considered before. After Abram became “exalted father” Abraham, after his great-grandson Joseph moved the family to Egypt, after the family had over many generations been fruitful and multiplied, after Moses led them out of Egypt into the desert, after they became a wandering nation founded on the Law and the Levitical priesthood, when at last Joshua led them across the Jordan, the people of Israel would have experienced their arrival in Canaan as the return to an ancient, nearly mythic realm that in ages past had been presided over by the legendary Melchizedek, a king and priest who had served the God of Israel before there even was an Israel. Finally, many generations later, when King David conquered (Jeru)Salem, the restoration was complete, with David and his heirs becoming the titular successors to Melchizidek, storied priest-king of the God Most High.

18 November 2011

God Detection Neurons?

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:21 pm

Here’s a second installment on Thomas Metzinger, following up on yesterday’s post.

If certain aspects of consciousness are ineffable, we obviously cannot correlate them with states in our brains… But pinning down the neural correlates of specific conscious contents will lay the foundation for future neurotechnology. As soon as we know the sufficient physical correlates of apricot-pink or sandalwood-amber, we will in principle be able to activate these states by stimulating the brain in an appropriate manner. We will be able to modulate our sensations of color or smell, and intensify or extinguish them, by stimulating or inhibiting the relevant groups of neurons. This may also be true for emotional states, such as empathy, gratitude, or religious ecstasy.

– Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel, pp. 19-20

Neuroscientific research has already made good progress in identifying brain coordinates for color perception, and investigation of the role of mirror neurons in empathy is a hot topic in the field. But being able to stimulate the neurons directly doesn’t belie the more important empirical evidence that these neurons are usually activated by information extracted from the environment. I.e., the parts of the brain that detect the color apricot-pink are tuned in to specific frequencies of radiomagnetic waves reflected by the surfaces of objects out there in the world, detected by photoreceptor cells in the retina, and transmitted via neural pathways to the brain.

So what about religious ecstasy? Already it can be artificially stimulated by shysters and hucksters; some day brain probes might be able to do the trick. But just because the religious ecstasy neurons can be juked doesn’t imply that all religious ecstasy is an illusion. Color-detecting neurons detect features of environmental surfaces; mirror neurons detect features of other humans. Might not religious ecstasy neurons detect features of other sorts of non-human, super-powerful sapient beings that are out there in the environment somewhere?

I know this idea has been proposed before, that the gods have equipped humans with internal mechanisms for detecting the gods’ presence or for receiving their messages. Metzinger refers to our internal representation of the environment as a “tunnel” because of its narrow bandwidth. We are equipped to detect only a small fraction of the almost unimaginably rich environment in which we are immersed. Maybe the gods are out there chattering and emitting vibes all the time, but we just can’t pick up the signals.

Humans who have never previously seen a snake exhibit fear on first contact with one. Presumably this is because the instinct to fear snakes was adaptive in the environment in which humans evolved. Our ancestors who had active snake-fear neurons avoided snakes, didn’t get bit, and so survived to pass on the snake-fear gene. Surely some ancestors who didn’t fear snakes managed to survive, and so there are surely some among us today who do not instinctively fear snakes. But there’s certainly no evolutionary pressure for the snake-fearing gene to go extinct in a snake-free environment. The snake-fear neurons are still there in the brain even if the bearer of that brain never once encounters a snake in the world.

So what about the god-detector neuron? Most people in the world claim to detect the presence of the gods. In a sense it doesn’t matter whether these billions of people’s god-detector genes are activated by real gods in their environment or whether they are artificially stimulated. The point is that these hypothetical god-detector neurons can be activated. Maybe in the evolutionary environment it was adaptive for humans to be aware of the gods. Maybe the gods enhanced survival value by conveying information about where to find food or where predators were hiding or how to overcome an enemy. Still, some of our ancestors who couldn’t detect the presence of the gods might have survived anyway, passing the god-indifference genes on to subsequent generations. Just as the absence of snake-fear genes does not hinder survival in an environment in which there are no real snakes, so the absence of god-detection genes might pose no handicap in an environment where the gods have departed or where they no longer provide survival benefits to humans.

Maybe the god-detector neurons need to learn — that is, they have to be put through some input-output-feedback iterations before they become properly attuned to the signal. Neurons assigned to language processing never function properly if you happen to be raised by wolves. Exposure to language-speakers during early childhood is necessary if the child is to learn to speak and understand speech. Maybe this iterative learning circuitry is necessary also for the god-detector neurons. If during the critical developmental period a person is not exposed to the gods, that person never develops the ability to detect gods if they happen to show up later.

It’s also possible that the god-detector neurons can become hypersensitized. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have hypersensitive asshole detector neurons: they’re chronically inflamed, always alert, always receiving signals alerting my brain to the proximal presence of assholes. The problem with a hypersensitive detection mechanism of this sort (or so I’m told) is that it generates some false positives; i.e., I’m prone to detecting assholes when none are present. Maybe this same problem of false positives plagues those burdened with hypersensitive god-detector neurons: they detect divine activity everywhere and all the time, even when it’s not present. Alternatively, people with dulled, insensitive detector neurons may experience a high proportion of false negatives. They don’t detect assholes or gods even when they’re staring them in the face.

5 May 2010

Flagellant Processions

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:51 pm

“When the whip is raised, when leather, scourge, and cane strike against covered or naked flesh, we stand before a stage — a stage on which a ritual unfolds.”

So begins In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, Niklaus Largier’s scrupulous chronicle of the curious practice of flagellation. While flogging has always been a popular method of punishment and torture, and while during the Lupercalia festival of ancient Rome women were whipped to ensure fertility, and although medieval Christianity was notoriously enthusiastic about penitence and penance, it isn’t until the tenth century that the disciplina of self-flagellation first appears in the annals of Christian asceticism. Even when practiced in eremitic seclusion, flagellation is intrinsically theatrical, for the act of self-abnegation is always staged for an audience of at least one: God Himself. But flagellation isn’t only an act of penitence; it is also, and perhaps predominantly, imagined as  a staged participation in the final scourging of Jesus that culminated in his crucifixion. In effect the flagellant’s blood intermingles with Jesus’ blood in a bodily re-enactment of the atonement. It’s in this sense of participating in Christ’s redemption that the public act of self-flagellation bears bodily witness to the Scriptural testimony. Enthralled by the multisensory image of the flagellant’s performance, the observer is brought through the inflamed imagination into an enactment of the Passion, where the torn flesh of the penitent commingles with the Word and the Spirit.

Largier traces the historical role of the intensely transcendent sensuality of flagellation through Ascesis to Erotics and finally to Therapeutics, these being the three main divisions of the book. While eventually we reach some risque bits and a few naughty pictures, I’m going to stick with ascesis in this post, because I learned about something I’d never heard of before. Did you know that there were flagellant processions during the Middle Ages? These were widespread popular movements that erupted not once but twice, eighty years apart. The first uprising of the flagellant processions began in 1260-1 in Perugia during a time of epidemic and famine; the second wave, in 1349-50, kept one step ahead of the plague that swept the continent.  Largier quotes at length from Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen, who witnessed some of the processions that erupted nearly everywhere in central Europe during 1349-50 and just as suddenly vanished.

“Priest and count, knight and serf participated… as well as monks, burghers, farmers, and professors… In those day, the flagellants moved about the land in great throngs. They tortured their bodies with gruesome whips whose effect was increased by the presence of knots in the straps. Whoever goes with them places himself under the sign of the cross, for as Scripture teaches us, all those who bear the cross are worthy and acceptable to the Virgin. They wore crosses on the front and back of their coats, also on the front and back of their hats… They even wear hats when flagellating themselves in a circle, so that… the cross is constantly before their eyes…

“They would spend each night in a different place, They stayed overnight at various sites, often quite impoverished ones, and would move about for a total of 34 days, since Christ spent exactly that many years on earth. The last day is only half a day, then everyone returns home.

“Once at nice and twice during the day, they tormented themselves with blows of the whip before the astonished crowd, and together they sang hymns while moving about in a circle and throwing themselves to the ground in the form of a cross. They did this six times, remaining on the ground each time until they had prayed two Pater Nosters.”

Bearing flags emblazoned with a cross, the flagellants, barefoot and clad in rags, would walk from town to town.  Until the 33½ days of their pilgrimage were completed the flagellants would neither bathe nor wash their clothes nor trim their beards. They were not permitted to ask for lodging, but could accept if a place was offered for the night. They were forbidden to sleep in beds or to associate with women.

“While on the path engaged in communal flagellation, they walked in side-by-side rows, like siblings, and sang songs as if they were scholars. As soon as they entered a place, the bells would ring and the people would stream out to gape at them and their fascinating terrible wounds. But they also came to beg of Christ the crucified, to fend off terrible and sudden death, and to give grace to the dead, peace to the living, and heavenly joy to the close of their lives… Crowds of men formed, and after a while they disappeared and no one knew any longer what had become of them.”

The flagellant processions made a significant impact on the towns they visited. Residents confessed their sins publicly, longstanding disputes were reconciled, thieves returned what they’d stolen, jails were emptied, slaves and captives were freed, exiles were welcomed home. Through strange behaviors, mass migration, egalitarian communality, and independence from most political and ecclesiastical authority, the flagellant processions constituted a radical if short-lived “deterritorialization” of medieval European culture.

Oh, and did I mention that this book was translated from the German by one Graham Harman?

UPDATE: Inasmuch as Graham linked to this post calling it a review, I’ll supplement my obsession over the flagellant processions with at least some review-like material. Briefly, I enjoyed the book and found it informative and stimulating. Largier spends more time describing than analyzing, but the wealth of material he’s assembled and the way he’s organized it maps an intellectual trajectory that’s self-validating. He doesn’t interpret, and implicitly condemn, medieval flagellation in terms of sublimated sexuality. Instead, he traces the gradual historic compartmentalization of a libidinal energy that a thousand years ago permeated body and spirit and imagination in a “conspiratorial connection” which, Largier contends, “became unbearable.” Phallic sexuality has thus become the only legitimate locus and interpretive context for erotic pleasure, including an odd variant like flagellation, while “the only place imagination is now allowed to occupy is the arts.”

Not having German myself, I cannot remark on the quality of the translation.

19 March 2010

The Universe as Divine Temple

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:49 pm

Before putting John Walton’s 2009 The Lost World of Genesis One on the shelf, I’ll summarize his interpretation of the Biblical creation story, because I found it interesting, distinctive, and not ridiculous. (I previously posted on Walton’s preliminary remarks about mythic and scientific accounts.)

Walton, an evangelical Old Testament scholar, begins by contending that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as artifacts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture rather than as timeless expressions of truth that transcend time and place. It should not surprise us then, says Walton, that God couched his Genesis 1 revelation in terms of an ancient cosmology — earth as the center of the universe, a “firmament” in the sky that keeps the heavenly floodwaters from pouring down onto the earth, and so on. That’s what the people of the time understood, and God didn’t see fit to enlighten them with more up-to-date information about. One wonders whether Walton might take the same stance about other aspects of the Biblical revelation that aren’t scientific but, say, ethical or political. E.g., did God reveal himself as jealous and punitive because that’s how the culture expected gods to act back then, and the people weren’t yet ready to understand the idea of a benign and forgiving deity? Did God present himself as championing a preferred nation that perpetrated genocide on its neighbors because national gods were a popular idea back then, and the people weren’t yet ready for a god of all nations, or a god for whom the concept of nation was irrelevant?

So, if Genesis 1 wasn’t intended as an accurate representation of cosmology or cosmogony, what was its purpose? Walton contends that the ancient Near Eastern culture subscribed not to a material ontology but to a functional ontology, in which objects and forces are characterized by their uses and purposes. A material object doesn’t exist in a functional ontology until its uses have been identified. So, e.g., unless that wooden thing across the room, consisting of a horizontal surface suspended 2 feet off the ground from four legs with a raised back, is recognized as something that can be used to sit on, it doesn’t exist as a chair.

Moving forward through the six days of the creation, Walton reiterates a set of distinctions that have long been recognized: days 1 through 3 establish functions, while days 4 through 6 identify functionaries. By setting light in oscillation with darkness, Day 1 establishes the beginning of time. I think this is an excellent interpretation, and it makes the literal passing of days an important part of the story. Day 2 marks the beginning of weather, separating the waters above (source of rain) from the waters below (sea). Day 3 is the beginning of food via plant life. The lights in the sky (day 4) are the functionaries for marking the passing of time (day 1). The sea creatures and birds and land creatures are the active agents of day 5. Man is the key functionary in the system on day 6. Again, all this is fine and has been proposed as a logical scheme by which functions are organized, rather than the temporal sequence of material ontogony.

Now we reach the heart of Walton’s interpretation. If Genesis 1 isn’t about God making the material universe or giving form to it, and if Gen. 1 is about assigning functions to the stuff of the universe, then what functional system is he assembling? Walton says that in Genesis 1 God is preparing the universe as his temple, as a place where he can live. In Genesis 1 God is assigning temple-related functions to various parts of the universe.

I think this is a fascinating position. Walton cites examples from elsewhere in Scripture that fit this reading; e.g., God lives in the heavens and uses the earth as his footstool. Walton identifies parallels in other ancient Near Eastern religions, whose gods likewise regarded the universe as their house, where they rested, accepted worship, and exercised kingship over their domains. Material temples built in honor of the gods often patterned themselves after the cosmos as a whole, with fountains of waters, pillars of earth, heavenly vaults, and so on. Genesis 1 should be read not as a history of the construction this cosmic temple but as its dedication ceremony. The material universe might have been billions of years in the making, but the dedication takes six days to accomplish. On the seventh God takes occupancy of the prepared temple — he “rests” in his prepared and dedicated home. Says Walton:

“In short, by naming the functions and installing the functionaries, and finally by deity entering his resting place, the temple comes into existence — it is created in the inauguration ceremony.” (p. 89)

After going through this part of Walton’s book I woke up in the middle of the night imagining Genesis 1 as a grand celebratory recital. Start the light show! Put in the flowers and greenery! Let everything be fruitful and multiply! Bring on the human assistants! Roll out the red carpet! Wonderful! I can picture the Genesis 1 text — as can Walton — being read ceremonially every year as a spectacular rededication of the universe to God.

In short, I quite like this interpretation. A few further points are worth considering:

Walton contends that the Bible “implies” that God created the material universe even if it’s never explicitly stated and even though Gen. 1 doesn’t speak to the topic. The few Scriptural verses he offers to justify this position aren’t convincing, inasmuch as they could be interpreted as referring to the creation of function rather than matter, just as Walton interprets Genesis 1. If Christian theology is driven by Biblical exegesis, and if exegesis makes no definitive assertion about whether God created the material universe, how might Christian theology be affected by that acknowledgment? Since the Bible doesn’t make a big deal about God as material creator ex nihilo, would it make sense to downplay or even to eliminate this divine attribute from theology? Isn’t it possible that the Hebrew Bible remains entirely silent about God’s status as material creator ex nihilo? Would it be acceptable for faithful Judeo-Christians to acknowledge agnosticism regarding whether their God might have had nothing to do with material creation?

It is possible to assign functions to objects that already exist. Someone can find a stone and use it as a hammer, or as part of a wall, or as a medium from which to chisel out a sculpture. Why then couldn’t God have simply arrived on the scene billions of years after the universe had taken shape and simply decided to “move in,” adapting it as his dwelling place? The objects and processes comprising the material universe may have a set of functions relative to God’s dwelling place, but this need not exhaust their function. E.g., the sun might be useful for distinguishing day from night in God’s temple, but it might also be useful for keeping the earth from spinning out into space and for keeping it warm enough to live on. I.e., the same material object can serve more than one function. There’s no need to claim that the universe took the material shape it did specifically and exclusively in order that it might eventually serve God’s purpose as a home. Walton contends that God no longer uses the universe as his temple (though I’m not sure why). Nonetheless, the universe and its contents persist, serving all sorts of other functions.

Walton says that God’s temple serves not just as his home, not just as his place to “rest,” but as his base of operations for running the universe. Part of God’s purported operations include keeping the material universe running, all the way down to holding individual molecules together. Again, I don’t see why that necessarily follows from the exegesis. If Genesis 1 makes no reference to material creation of the universe, why assume that God’s running of the material universe is implied? It’s certainly not stated. Why not assume that the universe runs itself, just as it had been running itself before God decided to make it his temple?

15 March 2010

The Sage Speaks!

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

[UPDATED: Due to popular demand (well, it’s one guy actually, and it’s more a question than a demand), I offer not just one but three exciting installments!]

I’ve just finished rewriting and editing my book about Genesis 1, and I’m pretty pleased with it. What nearly 4 years ago was a 95,000-word treatise has been converted into a 35,000-word work of fiction. Here’s me reading the first two pages or so with only a few minor verbal fumbles…

The second installment is a re-edit of an old Ktismatics post from 2007

And here’s the third and final videotaped reading…

10 March 2010

Science as Myth

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:10 am

“One of the principal attributes of God affirmed by Christians is that he is Creator. That conviction is foundational as we integrate our theology into our worldview. What all is entailed in viewing God as Creator? What does that affirmation imply for how we view ourselves and the world around us? These significant questions explain why discussions of science and theology so often intersect. Given the ways that both have developed in Western culture, especially in America, these questions also explain why the two often collide.”

– John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (2009)

Over a year ago Erdman, well aware of my persistent obsession with the Biblical creation story, alerted me to this book’s publication. I bought it awhile back, but only now am I getting around to reading it. Walton, professor of Old Testament at the evangelical Wheaton College, argues in his book that Genesis 1 describes the creation not of the material world but of its function in God’s ordained order. This interpretation fits nicely with my own non-theistic reading, so I’m intrigued. All the same, the early going reveals that I’m not going to see completely eye to eye with Walton.

Walton begins by proposing that the Hebrew scriptures should be read as texts produced by people who lived inside of a distinct historical culture, and that understanding the texts requires understanding the culture. That proposition seems fair enough, though as Walton admits it’s easier said than done. Only fragmented evidence is available to us that describes ancient cultures, and much of that evidence consists of the very texts we’re trying to understand. At the same time, we’re all part of the same species, and even ancient Hebrew is just as modern structurally as any modern language. So I’m fairly optimistic that we can understand texts produced by ancient writers. The earliest known writings were material inventories and records of local events: kinds of writing with which we’re still very familiar.

At the end of the intro Walton explains what he means by “myth”:

“The Canaanites or the Assyrians did not consider their myths to be made up works of the imagination. Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe the world works that way… By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science — our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be… For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represents what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.” (pp. 14-15)

I’m fine with Walton’s contention that the creation narrative probably does reflect what the writer truly believed happened. I’m not fine with his equating premodern myths with scientific explanations.

The sequence in putting forward any cosmogony, be it mythic or scientific, is roughly this: certain events happened; someone arrived at a belief regarding what happened; that person wrote it down. There is a gap to be spanned between what actually happened and what someone believes happened. Science consists of a set of systematic replicable methods for bridging this gap between event and belief. It seems to me that Walton wants not to bridge the gap between actual event and belief but to do away with it. He proposes that the shared cultural beliefs about reality are the reality for that culture. One culture says that its god created the material universe from nothing in six days; another culture, that its god gave birth to the material universe; a third, that the universe originated in a big explosion and organized itself over billions of years. Apparently Walton regards these three accounts as equally mythic and equally true for the cultures in which they arose.

This strikes me as a rather radical assertion for an evangelical to make, but it’s certainly not unprecedented. The material world is inseparable from the thoughts and words we use to talk about it; the world is what it means to us, subjectively and intersubjectively — it’s a variant on the postmodern hermeneutics of world-as-text. We discussed implications of this orientation in a recent post on Fear of Knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted on other aspects of the book I find interesting as I go along.

24 February 2010

Flat Hamartiology

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 8:19 am

As a Catholic kid I grew up amid a hierarchy of sins. Venial sins were minor everyday violations — lesser offenses like swearing or disobeying your parents. Minor offenses incurred minor punishments: say a Hail Mary or two as penance; or, if you don’t get yourself confessed by a Priest before you die, you might have to put in a few years in Purgatory for each venial sin before you get to go to Heaven. There were distinctions made between venial sins: disobeying your parents was naughty, but lying to your parents was pretty bad. Mortal sins were the big ones: murder, … and what else? I was never clear on that. I assumed that violating the Ten Commandments was a mortal sin, but one of  the Commandments is “Honor your father and mother.” So disobeying your parents is mortal and not venial? Or maybe hitting your parents is mortal? My mother told me that her grandmother used to tell her that if you hit your mother your hand will stick up out of the grave. Maybe that’s what happened to Carrie in the movie. Oh, I remember another mortal sin: failing to do your Easter duty, which meant that you had to go to confession and communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Easter. The consequence of committing mortal sin was potentially dire: if you died with an unconfessed mortal sin on your conscience you went straight to Hell with no possibility of release. The idea of a habitual pattern of sinfulness was alien to my young Catholic understanding: you could tell a bunch of lies without being a liar. Confess each lie and you’re off the hook.

I went agnostic as a kid, but then later on I got Born Again. I learned that the distinction between mortal and venial sin was bogus: any offense against God was grievous. No Purgatory either: only Heaven and Hell. Going to Confession? Irrelevant. If you’re Born Again, then you’ve been forgiven for all your sins past, present and future. There was debate about whether there might not be an Unforgivable Sin, or whether you could lose your salvation, or whether an ongoing pattern of sinfulness might mean that you’d never been saved in the first place. In the Born-Again theory that I learned, sin wasn’t a specific behavior but a way of being: either you were for God or you were against Him. Or perhaps sin was a life direction: moving away from God rather than toward Him.

And so in my on-again off-again Christian pilgrimage I encountered two distinct theories of sin. In the Catholic version, sins are discrete “objects.” One might think of sins as excretions of the self that cling to you and that weigh you down. These sin-objects come in varying weights, but there is a category of extremely heavy sin-objects that drag you all the way to hell. The lighter-weight objects participate in a kind of economy: you can get rid of the weight either by saying some prayers or by putting in some time in Purgatory. Famously, Martin Luther didn’t much care for the way the sin-economy was being administered by the Church. Clearly our contemporary criminal justice system operates according to a Catholic principle of discrete crimes as excrescences that can be paid for by time or money, unless of course it’s a “mortal crime.”

In the Born-Again hamartiology sin was a way of being, or a direction of movement, or a relational position. Sins as discrete objects weren’t important in and of themselves. Sins were external signs of an inner corruption that produce them, just as individual coughs and sneezes signify an underlying sickly condition. It was even possible to cure the sickness without clearing up the symptoms right away: the sinner’s corruption is removed, his direction turned around, his relationship with God restored, even if he does continue excreting the odd sin-object now and again.

So now I’m wondering whether the new object-oriented ontologies might be able to generate some alternative hamartiologies. Catholic sins are objects, but they’re hierarchically arrayed. Born-Again sin isn’t an object at all but an essence or trajectory or relationship. So I’d say that the Catholic scheme gives us a better starting point. On the other hand, there’s the Born-Again view that all sins, big and small alike, are equal in that they’re all generated by a serious, indeed a fatal, underlying condition.

How about this: Each person is an object; each sin is an object. A sin may (or may not) emerge from the interaction of a specific person with another person or situation or object: call this interactional context a “temptation.” The specific sin that’s spawned in the temptational interaction is a composite object, its specific properties generated by but irreducible to the properties of the individual sinner and the other object which the sinner encounters during the temptation.

What if temptation is resisted: is no new object formed? Or does resisting temptation produce a “virtue-object”? Do sin-objects still carry varying amounts of weight, as in the Catholic economy, and can removing this weight still be paid for by penance-objects? Do virtue-objects carry weight, or perhaps buoyancy — an anti-weight that counteracts the weight of sin-objects? Clearly more research is needed.

16 February 2010

Moderation Tuesday

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:31 am

So the Catholics invented Carnival and Lent, Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, the cycle of excess and fasting, of dissipation and self-abasement. The Anglicans kept half the wheel but got rid of the other half. They even turned Fat Tuesday into Shrove Tuesday, “shrove” being the past tense of “shrive,” which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins through confession and repentance. I thought that’s what Ash Wednesday was for.

Carnival celebrates the last days of eating meat (carne) before lent, so Mardi Gras is traditionally a carnivore’s delight. Shrove Tuesday replaces the pig roast with a pancake supper. Those Anglicans sure know how to party.

I think maybe Shrove Tuesday ought to be celebrated as international WASP day. But let’s not get carried away.

7 January 2010

Bad Lieutenant by Ferrara, 1992

Filed under: Christianity, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:28 am

“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a roomy house with spacious upper rooms, and cut out its windows, paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.’

“Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the Lord.

“But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion.” Therefore thus says the Lord in regard to Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, “They will not lament for him: ‘Alas, my brother!’ or, ‘Alas, sister!’ They will not lament for him: ‘Alas for the master!’ or, ‘Alas for his splendor!’ He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, dragged off and thrown out behind the gates of Jerusalem.

“Go up to Lebanon and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out also from Abarim, for all your lovers have been crushed. I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, ‘I will not listen!’ This has been your practice since your youth, that you have not obeyed My voice. The wind will sweep away all your shepherds, and your lovers will go into captivity; then you will surely be ashamed and humiliated because of all your wickedness. You who dwell in Lebanon, nestled in the cedars, how you will groan when pains come upon you, pain like a woman in childbirth!”

– Jeremiah 22:13-23

Last night I watched Bad Lieutenant: not the new New Orleans re-envisioning by Werner Herzog, but the New York original starring Harvey Keitel. It’s a much harsher and bleaker film than Herzog’s, but ultimately it’s a morality play, a Catholic parable about sin and guilt and penance, about the terrible capriciousness of fate, about justice and mercy and forgiveness. That the story centers not on ordinary civilians but on cops and mobsters and nuns means that the movie is also a social commentary — a jeremiad. Even Jesus makes two personal appearances: once on the cross, once off it.

Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is as old-fashioned and impassioned, as personal and universal as the Old Testament. As fascistically sadomasochistic too. In my prior writing about the Testaments I’ve gone for intellectual and weird in fiction, for creative and conciliatory in nonfiction. But now I’m becoming persuaded that to get at the meaning of this ancient reality you have to paint it red.

23 December 2009

The Name

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Language — ktismatics @ 6:14 pm

[For three years I’ve been a lurker on a Biblical Hebrew online forum. Usually I ignore the discussion threads, but here’s one that caught my fancy. Call this my Christmas post.]

It’s pretty widely known that the Biblical name of the Hebrew God, transliterated into English, is YHWH. There’s a longstanding Jewish tradition of not writing or speaking the name of God as a token of respect. In most English translations of the Old Testament the name Yahweh is usually written as LORD, which conforms to the time-honored Jewish practice of substituting adonai — Hebrew for “lord” — for YHWH when reading Scripture aloud. This euphemistic substitution was evident also in the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible completed in the second century BC. The Septuagint translators generally replaced YHWH with kurios = Greek for “lord.” The New Testament writers, who wrote mostly in Greek, never used the name YHWH when referring to God. When they quoted passages of the Hebrew Bible they followed the Septuagint precedent of substituting kurios for YHWH.

However… Most of the earliest manuscripts of the Septuagint date to the 2nd C AD. In the very oldest fragments, from the first century BC, YHWH still appears in the text and has not been replaced by kurios. Is it possible that Jesus and his followers spoke the word YHWH, that the original New Testament documents likewise wrote YHWH and not kurios, that the prohibition against speaking or writing the name of God didn’t happen until later, say in the 2nd C AD? This seems unlikely, since not a single one of the early New Testament manuscripts or fragments contains the name YHWH instead of kurios. The first-generation Christians frequently engaged in heated public debates about how Jewish they should be with respect to following the laws and traditions. Never is there a mention about whether the name of God should be written or spoken. It would seem that either the issue hadn’t come up yet, or else it had already been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

So when did the tradition of not speaking God’s name begin? There’s no prohibition against it in the Bible itself. To the contrary: when God reveals his name to Moses at the burning bush, he tells Moses that “This is my name forever, and this is my memorial name to all generations” (Exodus 3:15). In telling Moses what to say to the elders of Israel, YHWH explicitly says that Moses should speak the name YHWH. The text of Exodus probably reached its final edited form in the 5th century BC. The original Septuagint continued using the name YHWH in the 2nd century BC. By Jesus’ time, the name of God had probably already been euphemized to adonai, kurios, and even the more indirect version KS (abbreviation for kurios). So that suggests a time period around the first century BC.

Between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, the Hellenes extended the Greek civilization throughout the Middle East, where most of the Jews lived. Greek became the official language throughout the region. Even after the Romans conquered the Hellenes, the Greek language maintained its dominance among the educated classes in the eastern sectors of the Roman Empire. In Hebrew the word YHWH looks like this: יהוה — read from right to left. But by the time of Jesus Hebrew had become virtually a dead language even in Israel. Someone encountering this Hebrew word in a Greek text might well have thought it looked like the nonsense Greek word πιπι — read from left to right, that’s pipi. According to St. Jerome this is exactly what happened, although how in the 4th century AD he would know isn’t clear (unless there were still texts in circulation using the Hebrew name). So there’s  one pragmatic reason for making the change. But why not just transliterate the Name from Hebrew letters to Greek? For one thing, there’s no Greek letter corresponding to ה (transliterated as H in English). But if people were used to hearing the name pronounced aloud the pipi error would likely not have happened, suggesting that the prohibition on speaking The Name was already in effect.

It’s possible that the non-Jewish population among whom the Jews lived would use the name of YHWH in vain, thereby violating the Sinaitic commandment. Surely blasphemy against the Jewish God had been common during the Babylonian captivity of the 6th century BC, but no evidence of the naming prohibition appears that early in Jewish history.

Here’s my guess, though I’m open to counter-persuasion. During the 150 years before Christ, Israel witnessed a significant upsurge in messianic and holiness and nationalistic movements. The successful Maccabean liberation of Israel from the Seleucids and the subsequent Roman conquest and occupation provoked an internal conflict within Israel between the conciliatory pragmatists and the separatists. Both factions might well have agreed on no longer speaking the name of the Hebrew god. Those Jews who wanted to blend in with the Greco-Roman culture wouldn’t want to call attention to their Hebraisms, whereas those who wanted to purify themselves from the outside corruption permeating Israel would want to emphasize their God’s transcendent separateness by withdrawing even his name from unworthy human voices and ears and eyes.

But now this question comes to mind. We’re presuming that the prohibition against speaking/writing/reading the name YHWH was already practiced by Jesus and his followers. The Epistle to the Philippians is widely regarded as authentically Pauline, written around 62 AD. Included in the letter is the so-called Kenosis passage, which may have already been a well-known Christian hymn that Paul incorporated into his text. It says:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [kurios], to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-11)

It sounds as if the Hebrew God, who isn’t named here but who is referred to as “the Father,” regards the name “Jesus” as the highest of all names. But it also sounds as though God the Father assigned the name “Jesus” to this guy after he had been crucified. But that’s not right: he was named Jesus at birth (Luke 2:21), and everybody called him Jesus during his life. Maybe a distinction is being made between the guy’s well-known human name, Jesus, and the name bestowed on him by God: the “name which is above every name,” which is the name. The name “Jesus” is to be proclaimed far and wide, but let it be understood: that name also points to another name, the highest name, a name which must remain unwritten and unspoken, the name he shares with God the Father.

I’ll keep my eyes open for further clarifications from the Biblical Hebrew discussion. And of course if’any readers of this post have insights or knowledge I hope you’ll divulge.

22 June 2009

Where Sacred Interpenetrates Secular

Filed under: Christianity, Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:17 pm

Here’s most of an email I sent to a guy last Friday: he’s an academic postmodern theologian who teaches at a nearby university. This is one of the directions I’m trying to take my practice.

I “work on work,” helping people reconnect the circuitry between passion and calling, between subjective agency and objective/intersubjective standards, between who they are and what they do. The ego is decentered in my praxis. Work isn’t all about what makes you happy or where you score on aptitude tests and interest inventories. Work contributes to culture, and hopefully work motivated by something like Truth, Beauty, and Justice can contribute to the construction of a better culture.

As you know, many evangelicals interpret the idea of “in the world but not of the world” in a way that dichotomizes church and human culture. Evangelicals can go into “the ministry” or conduct prayer breakfasts before work and so on, but the secular job itself? It’s a place to work out their individual salvation maybe, but not an arena where God is actively engaged. Emerging types can lament the worldliness of consumerism and pollution and neoliberal globalization, but they’re often more intent on building the church as a countercultural alternative to secular culture than on taking individual and collective stands for “good works” at the secular workplace.

As I’m sure you know, the TV show The Wire has prompted a lot of discussion in theory circles. Some dismiss it as just another racist indictment of inner-city drug-and-violence culture or a crypto-fascist valorization of vigilante justice. I’m more in the camp that regard the show as inspirational. Is it possible for some subset of people to be moved, as individuals and collectively, to Fight the Powers and take an active stand for justice? Are there rhizomatic movements of Spirit that, irrupting in particular places and times and situations, set the preconditions for a just event to break through? Can individual and collective agency amplify and concentrate this movement of Spirit in an intentional act of de/reterritorialization? Even if the world eventually absorbs the event and carries on as usual, such events embody and prefigure an alternate reality in which highers standards prevail.

This is already a long email, so I’ll get to the specific agenda. I’d like to make a push into the church world, looking for people who might see the Spirit at work in the workplace but whose subjective agency is hampered both by the marketplace ethos and by the Christian ethos of ecclesial hermeticism. Can individuals hear and heed the rhizomatic movement of Spirit? Can collective Wire-like initiatives in the workplace be assembled through some kind of Spirit-led biopower? I’m not talking about self-consciously church-branded programs, but emergent efforts where the sacred interpenetrates the secular.

I sent a somewhat shorter and less abstract version of this email to a local pastor. No response from either so far.

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