Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Call From "Steve"

My son and I were happily playing in his mother's art studio in the attic (shh... don't tell!) when the phone rang. Now, ordinarily I wouldn't rush downstairs to answer the phone, but there have been a couple or recent developments which compel me to answer every time my phone rings:

1.) Adam has developed a keen interest in the phone. Every time it rings he says “da, da, da, da…” until someone picks it up. As annoying as having to answer the telephone is, it is that much more annoying to have a one-year-old repeat the same sound over and over again for as much a fifteen minutes after the phone has stopped ringing.

2.) In what is perhaps the next great sign of the apocalypse (or at least yet another sign that my “freelance writing” career isn’t exactly taking off) I have applied for a sort of menial (soul sucking?) job.

How did this happen? Good question.

I have written on my love of chocolate, and my aversion to selling anything, here before. In the comments section of that post, my friend Brian Cubbage suggested that, since:

a.) I need to make some money
b.) I hate selling products I don’t believe in, and
c.) I clearly believe in chocolate,

I ought to look for a job selling chocolate.

Last week Sami, Adam and I were trucking through the mall, and we passed a Godiva outlet. The first thing I noticed was the giant chocolate covered strawberry (yum) on the advertisement in the window. The next thing I notice was the small sign below the luscious strawberry, which read:


Given the context, I just had to apply for the job. I doubt I’ll get it, since I’m not cut out for retail. Every single thing that I’m good at fails totally to impress the bottom line orientated managers of retail outlets. They don’t care if you are a well educated, intelligent, articulate, witty and insightful observer of politics and religion. They don’t care if you finished at the top of your college class (unless you got your degree in business or something, rather than philosophy) or if you won a few writing competitions. They certainly don’t care if you’ve spent the last 4+ years of your life serving in various ministerial roles. They only care if you’ve worked similar jobs in the past, can work the hours they want you to work, and are willing to sell your soul (or, at least your right to have a soul) for peanuts per hour.

But I still had to apply for the job. And, now that I’ve applied for a job, I rush to answer the phone every time it rings, in the vain hope that the person on the other end will hire me for a job I won’t regret taking.

So, I picked up the boy and ran down the attic stairs to the main floor of our Cape Cod style house, which has the only operational telephone. There are phones in the attic (my wife’s studio) and the basement (my office); they just don’t work.

We got to the operational telephone on the third ring. I answered it, and immediately knew I’d made a mistake. There was a brief pause, followed by a dial tone, and then more ringing. Like a fool I stayed on the line, and was redirected to the voice of an Indian-sounding (as in from India, not Native American) man.

I’m not sure what I think of outsourcing, but whatever I think about it doesn’t matter, since it isn’t going anywhere. I’m certainly not so jingoistic as to blame people in countries like India for taking the “American” jobs that no American wants. Anyway, we all know that many telemarketing agencies outsource to India. So why should I care if the guy trying to sell me a product I don’t want sounds Indian rather than American?

The short answer is, I don’t. The long answer is, well… long.

I would say that there is a certain amount of racism in a marketplace which assumes that we are more likely to buy something from someone who sounds like us and has a name like ours than we are from someone from India, even if it just so happens that the person who sounds like us and has a name like ours is actually calling from India. I would say that, but, of course, the market itself isn’t racist. It’s capitalist. It does whatever it is that has been deemed to be most likely to make money. So, rather than being racist, the market reflects our own racism.

Why does this bother me? Aside from the obvious reasons, it bothers me because the very obviously Indian man on the telephone did not give me an Indian name. Rather, he said, in a thick Indian accent, “Hello, sir. My name is Steve, and I’m calling on behalf of…”

Why should this man have to be “Steve” for me?

Once again, I don’t have any nice, neat moral to this story. I can’t come up (at least at this moment) with some kind of comprehensive theory for marketplace ethics in a global economy. I can’t come up with a great moral theory of outsourcing. I can’t even identify all of the ways in which the marketplace reflects our own biases and prejudices, much less come up with some sort of plan of action to overcome it. I can simply ask that question:

Why should this man have to be “Steve” for me?

If you’ve got any answers (or even guesses), leave a comment or send me an email.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Comparing, Contrasting and Evaluating Christian “Salvation” and Buddhist “Enlightenment” in the “Problem-Solution” Model

When comparing and/or contrasting two religions, there are two equal and opposite dangers which must be avoided. The first is to say that all religions are essentially variations of the same moral and/or spiritual teachings. This denies the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and in doing so insults all religions. The second, which is at least as bad, is to assume that there is no overlap between religions, or that they don't really have anything to teach each other.

I write on both Buddhism and Christianity (though as a Christian and a former minister I've written a great deal more on Christian topics). This is because I "find myself" in the context of each of these great religious traditions. I am a Christian, and my Christian faith is essential to me. It is the very air I breathe. But at a time when my faith was too weak to sustain me I encountered the teachings of the Buddha, and they nearly saved my life.

I love both Christianity and Buddhism. Because of my love for these traditions I try to expose people to the best in both of them. In doing so, I occasionally write about areas in which they overlap - though in doing so I want to make clear that they are not "essentially" saying the same thing. Buddhism and Christianity are very different religious traditions, but Buddhists and Christians have a great deal to learn from each other.

Here is a paper (Comparing, Contrasting and Evaluating Christian "Salvation" and Buddhist "Enlightenment" in the "Problem-Solution" Model) I wrote on some of the common ground between these religious traditions, edited slightly for this blog:

Humans, it seems, are innately religious. There is not, to my knowledge a single known instance of a human culture without a rich spiritual or religious tradition. So, what accounts for this? How did religion arise, and why are people (in general) religious? There are as many answers to questions like this as there are diverse religious and spiritual traditions. Sigmund Freud believed that religion is "a universal obsessional neurosis," evidence that human beings, in general, are seriously mentally and psychologically defective. Emile Durkheim believed that religion serves as a means by which to hold society together. Karl Marx believed that religion serves as a means by which to hold together a system of economic exploitation. Mircea Eliade believed that religion serves to bring people into contact with the "sacred."

Each of these theories, and, in fact, all general theories of religion, seek to explain why people in general, or humanity as a whole, is religious. In doing so, whether explicitly or implicitly, they treat religion as a single subject, and they treat humanity as a collective rather than a group of individuals. But humanity is comprised of individuals. It is not a thing in and of itself. As such, humanity as a whole cannot act. It cannot do or choose anything. Rather, only individuals within humanity can act. Only individuals can choose to be religious or irreligious. And, the choice is not just between religion and irreligion; it is also between many diverse religious and spiritual traditions. And, while decisions made by individuals are often conditioned by factors outside the volition of the individual; still individuals, for individual reasons, make decisions related to religion.

So, perhaps, the question is not "why are people religious?" Perhaps the question is, "why is this person religious?" "Why did this person choose this particular religious tradition?" There are, of course, many possible answers to that question. People choose to be religious or irreligious for many reasons, some within the realm of volition, others within the realm of conditioning. But one reason why any person would choose to be a religious person within a particular religious tradition is because, in some way, the theory and practice of that religious or spiritual tradition "works" for them.

But, what does it mean to say that something "works" with regard to religion? Certainly it does not mean the same thing as saying that the garage door opener works, or saying that the oven works. Spirituality cannot be accurately compared to an appliance which either serves its function or fails to serve its function, can it? And, even if it could, is religion the sort of thing that is best described in terms of functionality? Many of the theories outlined in the opening of this paper would say so; but those theories fail to accurately describe the individual experience of religion. So, to the individual, what does it mean to say that religion works?

Many, most, and, perhaps all human beings have a deep-seated existential need to find some kind of "meaning" in life. Many, most, and, perhaps all people also have, related to that existential need, some kind of deep-seated feeling, often inarticulateable, that there is something "wrong." This feeling, in the context of this question for meaning, represents a kind of existential problem. An individual's experience of religion, as well as the choices that an individual makes with regard to religion, may represent their way of "solving" that existential problem.

Each religion, in some way, offers up both a diagnosis of and a prescription for this problem. The diagnosis and prescription, while often offered in general terms, are expressions which are experienced, evaluated, internalized, and either accepted or rejected by the individual. One way, then, to compare and contrast, as well as evaluate the merits of various religious and spiritual expressions and traditions is to look at the way in which they diagnose and attempt to solve the basic individual human existential problem.

In many respects Christianity and Buddhism are as far apart as two religious or spiritual traditions can get. Christianity tends to be exclusivistic; Buddhism tends to be tolerant and pluralistic. Christianity is strongly monotheistic; Buddhism is non-theistic. Christianity is an often very doctrinal belief system; Buddhism is often held as a way of life which is not terribly attached to doctrine or belief. Christianity helped shape Western culture; Buddhism arose out of and embodies Eastern culture. But, both Buddhism and Christianity, in their most basic forms, offer diagnoses and prescriptions for the existential problem. And, while those diagnoses and prescriptions certainly do not entirely overlap, ways in which each tradition has expressed those diagnoses and prescriptions have many elements in common.

This paper attempts to compare and contrast the Buddhist and Christian teachings which deal with what I have called the existential problem, within the context of a "problem-solution" model. In other words, it looks at the Christian concept of "salvation" and teachings related to it, as well as the Buddhist concept of "enlightenment" and teachings related to it. It looks at the concepts through the lens of "problem-solution." In other words, it focuses on how each of these teachings diagnoses the existential problem, and attempts to solve that problem.

It should be said that I am a Methodist, and so the version of Christianity presented here is a very Methodist version. The model of salvation is the Wesleyan model found in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. I chose this model in part because, as a Methodist, I am biased toward it. But I also picked it because it is a very progressive model of salvation, describing salvation as an ongoing process rather than an instantaneous transformation. In this respect I see it as having much more in common with Buddhism than many other Christian models of salvation. I also find that this model more closely conforms to the way in which I actually experience life.

So, how do Christianity and Buddhism describe the existential problem? Let us first start with Christianity. In Christianity the basic problem is "sin." While it is not always clear what is meant by the word sin, Paul E. Little, a Christian apologist with the group Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (a non-denominational group which does not always agree with Methodist or Wesleyan theology) says that "[s]in is always primarily directed against God." "The seriousness of sin" according to Little, "is based on man's alienation from and broken fellowship with God." In other words, humans experience the existential problem because, through sin, they have somehow broken their relationship with God, which is the source of meaning, purpose, and happiness in life.

Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher, echoes Little's notion of alienation when he defines sin, in his book Making Sense out of Suffering, as "the disharmony or alienation between the soul and God." So then, a Catholic philosopher and an evangelical fundamentalist both agree that the existential problem is, in essence, a problem related to disharmony or alienation which is rooted in sin. And, to both Kreeft and Little, sin is both a conscious act and a condition. This alienation is an alienation, then, which we both choose and do not choose. We choose, in many cases, to act in the ways in which we act. And those actions are sin, and tainted by sin. But we are not entirely aware of our sinful condition, which helps to explain the choices that we make.

Buddhism, in its most basic presentation, is much more empirical and much less theoretical than Christianity. As such, the Buddhist presentation of the existential problem is much more concise, and does not need to make reference to undefined theological terms. To Buddhists, the problem is simply this: we suffer. In fact, the most traditional English translation of the first noble truth of the Buddha is, "Life is suffering." Donald S. Lopez, Jr., the professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, says, in his book The Story of Buddhism, "The first truth is the truth of suffering." There are many forms of suffering that human beings experience, "birth, aging, sickness, death, losing friends, gaining enemies, not finding what one wishes for, encountering what one does not with for." But, there is also a much more subtle form of suffering, and that, oddly enough, is pleasure. "Each source of pleasure will eventually become a source of pain." Nothing lasts forever; nothing remains unchanged. But we attempt to cling to the kinds of experiences that we prefer, that we find pleasurable. That clinging; that failure to recognize the impermanence of pleasurable experiences, causes us pain. As such, Lopez says, "Pleasure is... compared to the relief felt when a heavy burden is shifted from one shoulder to another. After a while, the other shoulder will begin to hurt, at which point the burden will be shifted back."

Life then, is characterized by suffering, and is full of causes of suffering. And, just as Christianity observes that the suffering - at least the existential suffering - which one experiences (in this case, alienation from God) has a very personal cause (sin); Buddhism also says that suffering has a personal cause. The second noble truth, in fact, deals with the cause of suffering. It is often rendered, in English, "suffering comes from desire," but Walpola Rahula, the great Buddhist monk and scholar, translates the term samudya as "thirst." This thirst represents a particular kind of desire. It is a desire which can lead only to frustration. This frustration is caused either by the object of the desire or the nature of the desire. It is a thirsting for that which cannot be had, an unquenchable thirst. Or, it is a thirsting for that which can be had, but, if had, would only cause pain. Or, finally, it can be a thirsting which cannot be quenched because it wants something too much, far beyond the bounds of health or reason. Whatever the reason, this samudya, this "thirst" or desire or craving, causes suffering.

In both Christianity and Buddhism, then, the existential problem has a personal cause, and that cause is rooted both in volition and conditioning. Christianity describes this cause as being sin, which is both an act and a condition. Buddhism describes it as a kind of clinging, desperate desire; an unquenchable thirst for that which either can't be had or shouldn't be had. And, just as our actions are rooted in both volition and conditioning, so our desires are both volitional and conditioned.

Our pain, our suffering, is what informs us of our existential problem. And our pain, our suffering, is at the center of both the Christian and Buddhist diagnoses of our existential problem. But, while suffering is Buddhist diagnosis of our problem, the existence of suffering is a huge problem, in and of itself, for Christians. Critics of traditional, theistic Christianity have long said that the theistic description of God is logically inconsistent with the fact of pain and suffering in God's creation. This is called the problem of pain, the problem of suffering, or the problem of evil. This theological problem may or may not represent a real critique of Christianity - after all, not all Christians hold to the theistic description of God which presents the logical problem, and many who do have come up with complex theodicies to attempt to explain the problem away. Whether it does or not, the problem of pain does illustrate an important distinction between Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhists say that it is not necessary for God to exist, God is not empirically experienced, and the descriptions of God cause philosophic problems; so one does not need to believe in God. Christians, however, do hold to God, and usually a particular description of God. As such they have to come up with complex theological attempts to reconcile such problems.

But, while Buddhists may not see why Christians need to cling to their belief in God, Christians have problems with the Buddhist prescription for the existential problem which is made known by our pain and suffering. Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher, renders the Buddha's third noble truth thus: "...[T]he way to end suffering is to end desire. Nirvana (extinction) is that state. The world tries to close the gap between desire and satisfaction by increasing satisfaction, and never succeeds. Buddha takes the opposite road: decrease desire to zero." He then says, "I am not a Buddhist. I cannot help viewing Nirvana as spiritual euthanasia, killing the patient (the self, the I, the ego) to cure the disease (egotism, selfishness)."

Westerners have a tremendous problem with a particular Buddhist teaching, anatman, or "no-self." Rahula quotes the Buddha as saying "The world is in continuous flux, and is impermanent." He then goes on to say, "One thing disappears, conditioning the appearance of the next in a series of cause and effect. There is no unchanging substance in them. There is nothing behind them that can be called a permanent Self (Atman), individuality, or anything that can in reality be called 'I'." Because of this, Buddhaghosa (as quoted by Rahula) says "Mere suffering exists, but no sufferer is found; / The deeds are, but no doer is found." At the heart of Buddhist teaching is the notion of no-self, anatman. This stands with and before the Buddha's four noble truths about suffering. It is our desire to have a permanent self; to be a permanent self that creates a great deal of suffering in us. And, Buddhists say, there is no empirical reason to hold to a notion of impermanent self-hood. After all, we never experience anything as being permanent, much less our selves. We, along with everything else, are in a constant state of flux. It is when we try to hold static that which is constantly changing that we suffer.

It is this notion which Kreeft called "spiritual euthanasia." He simply could not make the jump to anatman. But, in his rendering and criticism of Buddhism from a Christian perspective, did Kreeft get it right? Did he accurately describe the third noble truth, and does he really understand either the concept of no-self, or the related concept of emptiness? Rahula says that "[t]he Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodhaariyasacca), which is Nibbana, more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvana." So far, so good. Kreeft's rendering is not far from Rahula's. Rahula then goes on to say, "To eliminate dukkha completely one has to eliminate the main root of dukkha, which is 'thirst' (tanha)... Therefore Nirvana is known also by the term Tanhakkaya 'Extinction of Thirst.'" So, while it may seem crude to render Nirvana as simply "Extinction," that description of it, while over simplified, is not unlike Rahula's description. But, where Kreeft gets it wrong is in his description of "desire."

He seems to think that Buddhism aims for the extinction of all desires, but that is not the case. Tanha does not represent all desires; it merely represents the kinds of unhealthy desires which lead to suffering. Buddhism actually encourages desires which lead to the four sublime states: Metta (universal love), Karuna (compassion), Mudita (sympathetic joy) and Upekkha (equanimity). So, the Buddhist prescription for suffering is not exactly the "spiritual euthanasia" which Kreeft describes, though anatman is an uncomfortable idea for Westerners.

But, while the Buddhist prescription involves surrendering all claims to a permanent self, in many respects it is a rather self-centered solution, at least in the sense that the solution, much like the problem, resides in the individual. Suffering cannot be brought to an end by any external force, entity, or action. It is experienced internally, and must be ended internally, through the extinguishing of unhealthy desires which are rooted in the ignorant claim of a permanent self. In this respect, the Christian prescription is very different.

In the Wesleyan/Methodist expression of the Christian concept of salvation, the sinner is saved by the grace of God, which is divided into three kinds of graces: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace. Prevenient Grace is, according to the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, "the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of all of our conscious impulses." It "awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith." In other words, it is the grace of God which is active in the lives of all people, without distinction, aiming to bring them closer to salvation.

That salvation is accomplished by what is known as Justifying Grace, which brings about the "process of justification." The Book of Discipline says, "In justification we are, through faith, forgiven our sin and restored to God's favor. This righting of relationships by God through Christ calls forth our faith and trust as we experience regeneration, by which we are made new creatures in Christ." So, salvation entails the gradual elimination of the conditions which give rise to our existential crisis. This elimination is by grace through faith, which means that it is not accomplished by the effort of the individual, but rather by the work of God, through Jesus Christ. While human beings are to participate in that work, they are not responsible for it. They cannot act as the agents of their own salvation.

Sanctification is a very Wesleyan concept, and in the Methodist Church it is inseparably linked to salvation. The "[n]ew birth" of salvation is, according to The Book of Discipline, "the first step in the process of sanctification. Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which [John] Wesley described as a heart 'habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor' and as 'having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.'" Like salvation, or justification, sanctification is not accomplished by any work by the individual, but rather by the grace of God. And, like justification, it is described as a "process" rather than an instantaneous transformation. As justification gradually eliminates the conditions which give rise to our existential problem, sanctification gradually eliminates the possibility of sin. One who is sanctified is one who has been made perfect, and is no longer capable of any kind of sin.

The work of salvation; the work of justification and sanctification, is held by Christians to have been accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. This notion, central to the Christian religion, is one which has given Buddhists a great deal of trouble. While the words of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, "...whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life... will save it," may sound like Zen to some Westerners, the crucifixion of Jesus, which is the great scandal of Christianity, is an obstacle to Buddhists. After all, Christians claim that this destructive act was made necessary by human sin. They claim that, in fact, it is only through the death of an innocent person that they are saved. Such claims are baffling to Buddhists in at least two respects. First, it seems strange to the Buddhist that one would need a savior at all. After all, in Buddhism, as in Christianity, the problem is contained within the individual. It makes sense, then, that the solution is also contained there. But, more importantly, there seems to be a serious moral problem with the idea of brutal sacrifice, in the form of an execution, in the name of salvation.

D.T. Suzuki said, "Whenever I see the crucified figure of Christ, I cannot help thinking of the gap that lies between Christianity and Buddhism. This gap is symbolic of the psychological division separating the East from the West." The anatman of Buddhism drives Christians to distraction, but the egocentric and brutal claims of Christianity which are embodied in the idea of demanding that Jesus die for me bother Buddhists. The speculative nature of Western thought baffles the East; the non-linear nature of Eastern thought drives Westerners nuts.

But, the divide between East and West; the divide between Christianity and Buddhism, is not too great to bridge. That bridge is found in certain similarities between the Christian concept of salvation as a process (which includes Prevenient grace, Justification, and Sanctification) with a particular understanding of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.

Just as Prevenient grace is said by the Methodists to "awaken in us an earnest longing for deliverance," enlightenment is seen by Buddhists as a kind of awakening. The Buddha, after all, can mean "awakened one." The concept of awakening, whether it is Christian or Buddhist, carries with it a notion that a big part of our problem is that we are asleep. We are dreaming. We are drifting through life without a conscious thought, without an awareness of our profound existential problem. We must be shaken from our slumber. Whether this is accomplished by the grace of God or an individual act of volition, we must awake. We must become awakened. Once we are awakened, we can become aware of our existential problem, which is fueled by our ignorance of its nature, and we can set out on the path to solving it.

Both salvation and enlightenment are processes. Sure there is, in each, a moment in which something happens. But that moment is not the only moment. And, whatever happens plays itself out in time. In time, and through time, our nature is transformed. In time and through time the conditions which gave rise to our existential problem are eliminated. This is gradual. It does not happen all at once.

Lopez says that there are two types of nirvana. "The first is called 'nirvana with remainder.' This is the nirvana that the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree, when he destroyed all the seeds for future rebirth. But the karma that had created his present life was still functioning and would do so until his death, like a watch that has been wound but will eventually stop. Thus, his mind and body during the rest of his life are what was left over, the remainder, after he realized nirvana. The second type is called the 'nirvana without remainder,' or final nirvana. This is the nirvana that the Buddha passed into upon his death." Similarly, a Christian can be saved, and even sanctified, in this life. But, such a Christian does not experience the full experience of salvation until death.

Salvation and enlightenment do not, of course, describe the same thing. Salvation depends on an act of God, and concerns a soul, or a permanent self. Enlightenment does not depend on anything external, and occurs when one has a direct experience of the truth that there is no permanent self. But, both are ways in which people attempt to address their existential problem. Both are means by which the elimination of the conditions which give rise to suffering are supposed to be achieved. Both describe spiritual processes which aim to make life happier and more meaningful.

Christianity and Buddhism are not the same. One describes a monotheistic God; the other denies the possibility, and even the value of a god. One attempts to save a permanent self; the other attempts to liberate an experiencing collection of processes from the ignorant notion that there is such a thing as a permanent self. But, both are ways in which humans have tried to deal with their existential problem. It probably cannot be known whether or not the claims of Christianity or Buddhism are in any meaningful way true. But, their claims are not so far apart. They seem to diagnose roughly the same problem, and they both offer prescriptions for that problem that many people for many, many generations have found helpful.

[note: if anyone is interested in the material that went into this, let me know and I will send you a list of some of the books used as references.]

Friday, January 27, 2006

Happy Birthday Adam!

My son, Adam Christopher Baker, turned one year old at 1:11 this morning (not that we got him up then to celebrate)!

[note: we just got back from the doctor for his 12 month check-up. He's in perfect health, and he's a monster. He's in the 92 percentile in length and the 90 percentile in weight. Where did he get those genes?!?]

Adam, as one of the two most important people in my life, has been featured here more than a few times. Here are some of the posts in which he has appeared:

Anyway, happy birthday, my boy! Thanks for a fantastic (literally, as in "fully of fantasy") first year as a father. You're everything I dreamed you could be, and a whole lot more.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The End of the Peace Process?

I just read this article from the Christian Science Monitor, and it scared the hell out of me. I don't even have a response at the moment. Hamas has just won the Palestinian election. They now legally control that territory. A fundamentalist Muslim terrorist group is now a legitimately elected government!!! Does this undermine democracy? Perhaps not, but it does undermine the theory that the spread of democracy in the Middle East will help the United States' standing in the region.

Alas, I don't have anything constructive to say, except that if ever there were a time for prayer...

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

How the "Heart Sutra" Speaks to "Attachment" in Religion

As I've said before, I firmly believe that one of the main causes of the so-called Culture War is our tendency to become attached to our ideas about God. We, believeing that we have unravelled the great mystery of existence, impose our ideas on others, creating doctrinal conflict.

This problem is not unique to Christianity, but because of the Christian tendency to emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right conduct), it is particularly pronounced in Christianity.

We Christians can learn a great deal from the way in which other religions approach doctrinal issues. Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular provide us with an excellent model. Here are some comments I put together on an ancient text, The Heart Sutra, which is extremely important in the Zen Buddhist tradition:

One of the main focuses of Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras, such as the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (the Heart Sutra) is the elimination of all attachments. This obviously entails all physical things, and that is easy to accept. My craving to possess and control material objects is empty. The material objects themselves are empty. In fact, I am empty. All of my cravings are empty. Everything that I crave, or could crave is empty.

This emptiness, however, extends far beyond the material; far beyond the physical. Ideas are empty. Ideas about ideas are empty. Religious or spiritual ideas – even those religious or spiritual ideas which seem to be in some way “helpful” – are empty. Even notions about emptiness are empty. One should not be attached to anything, or nothing, because anything and nothing are empty.

The Heart Sutra, as translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, says that even “all dharmas are marked with emptiness.” Even Buddhadharma (the teachings of the Buddha) is empty. One should not cling to it, or be attached to it in any way.

This notion of the emptiness of even Buddhadharma seems at first to be self-defeating. The Western mind wants to object; to say that, if notions of emptiness are empty, then there is no ground on which to affirm emptiness. If there is no ground on which to affirm emptiness, then how do we know that all things are empty? But that assumes that emptiness is an idea to be affirmed or rejected. That assumes that the value of Buddhism is contained in abstract ideas divorced – or divorceable – from practice. But Buddhism is not an abstract philosophy. No, it is a spiritually and psychologically meaningful, helpful, and experienceable practice. And, in practice, the notion of emptiness, even the emptiness of the teachings of the Buddha or any other form of spiritual or religious teaching, is not only helpful; it is necessary.

As someone begins to experience a religious path, there is a notion of accomplishment; of attainment. Their religious or spiritual practice often separates them from “other” people. Sets them apart. Makes them different, better, more enlightened. But such feelings of accomplishment; such feelings of attainment, cripple the spiritual life. This notion of attainment also leads to a feeling that their religious expression is the “right” one, and all other religious expressions are “wrong.” As such, it can lead to dogmatism and exclusivism. Those lead to attachments and aversions. One becomes attached to his or her point of view, and rejects all others. But the goal of Buddhism is to eliminate attachments.

Attachments need to be eliminated for both practical and theoretical reasons. Theoretically, attachment to a particular kind of belief or perspective is an illusion, because all such beliefs come out of ignorance and pertain to things about which one cannot know. Practically, attachments lead to unhealthy psychological states and harm relationships. They also limit people, because as soon as you attach yourself to a particular point of view you are incapable of seeing the flaws in that point of view, nor are you capable of truly seeing other points of view, and thus overcoming your limited vantage point.

But, even Buddhists are tempted to become attached. And, even Buddhists are tempted to become attached to particular religious or spiritual teachings. This is particularly true of Buddhists who have “advanced” somewhat. They know the teachings, the dharma of the Buddha. They have seen how much those teachings have helped them. They, then, cling to those teachings, and so, while seeking to shed all attachments, merely replace one set of attachments for another.

And so, “all dharmas are marked with emptiness.” They must be, because, if they are not empty, then they are objects to which one could become attached. They are empty, and should be treated as being empty. And, because they are empty, following them is not a kind of attainment, because there is no attainment. “Because there is no attainment, the bodhisattvas, supported by the Perfection of Understanding (that is, the understanding that all things, even Buddhadharma, are empty) find no obstacles for their minds.”

The notion that all things – even all dharmas – are empty eliminates all mental obstacles. It understands that even the teaching of the Buddha is an artificial mental construct, and should not be the object of attachment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Searching the Scripture for Meaning

[note: this is not part of the promised series on attachment in religion. The next post, which will deal with a Buddhist issue, will resume (and conclude?) that possibly-very-short series.]

A reader recently asked (privately - yes you can send me an email instead of leaving a comment if you wish to remain completely anonymous and/or private) me to explain the way in which I approach the scriptures. They were troubled by the fact that I sometimes treat Biblical characters as though they were historical figures (or, as the reader eloquently put it, "real, living, breathing persons") but at other times I treat them as mythological figures. Our discussion on this issue reminded me of the great distance between the classroom and the congregation.

When I was a pastor I was told by my congregation that they had never seen anyone dig as deeply into a particular passage as I did. Yet in my one scripture course in seminary (and, yes, I would have had to have taken more than one if I'd stayed in seminary - don't worry, they still make seminarians study scripture!) my professor told me that while I was doing adequate work I would eventually have to learn to dig deeper into the text.

I say that to say this: There are a number of different ways to approach and interpret a Biblical text, but all of them may fall into two broad categories:

1. You can approach a text from within a religious tradition, accepting the assumptions of that religious tradition, and interpreting the text for others within that religious tradition. While I have attacked this approach before, it is a perfectly valid and worthwhile way to approach and interpret scripture. But it is also a limited approach, and those who use it are often not aware of its limitations.

It is limited because, as it operates within a particular religious tradition, it can only speak to those within that tradition, who grant the assumptions of that tradition. Those who, for instance, hold that the Bible is the totally inerrant Word of God, to be read literally and interpreted literally, as literally true; cannot, in their Biblical exegesis, really speak to anyone who does not grant those assumptions about the Bible. But because they believe themselves to be in possession of "Absolute Truth," they are not aware of the limits of their perspective, and impose that mode of viewing scripture on everyone else.

2. You can approach the Bible from a scholarly perspective, as an ancient book best understood within its historical and cultural context. I have often advocated for this kind of approach (though it is ultimately many different approaches lumped together under a single heading), but I must admit that it, too, is limited.

Is it real possible to understand the way in which a passage of scripture speaks to those within a particular religious tradition if you are outside that religious tradition? Some scholars will answer "yes" to this, and to a degree they are right. We can certainly understand something of the way in which scripture speaks to a religious community without being inside that community. We can certainly understand something of the power that that community's interpretation of and love for scripture holds over the community without being a part of it. But we cannot understand it fully. We cannot understand the experience of being within that tradition, under that interpretation. We can articulate what it might mean, we can express what we observe; but we cannot actually experience that existential meaning.

I am neither a pastor nor a scholar (though I once sought to be both), but my approach to scripture combines both of these broad approaches. I am within a religious tradition, a religious community, and so that community, that tradition's approach to scripture colors my experience of scripture. But, aware of the limits of my own tradition I also seek out the insight that scholars can bring to a passage.

I approach scripture often as the intersection between myth and history. That is to say that while much of scripture seems mythological in nature, it represents and reflects the history of a people who helped shape my religious tradition.

For me, the least important question to ask a particular passage from the Bible is, "Did this happen?" A much more important question is, "What does this mean?" When we ask that question, concerning meaning, we are asking both a historical and a contemporary question. We are asking both "What has this meant?" and "What does it mean today?" In fact, to understand that second question (concerning meaning today) we must be able to answer the first question (concerning meaning in the past).

In my ill-fated seminary course on scripture (which, for me ended the moment I left the pastorate - I was serving a student appointment to pastor a United Methodist church, and when I decided to leave that pastorate I also decided to leave pastoral ministry as a career, and to leave the seminary which was preparing me for that career) I wrote a paper which, in its treatment of a passage from scripture, best served as an example of my approach to scripture. For those of you who just can't get enough of this sort of thing (both of you!), here is that paper (with footnotes, references, etc. removed because, come on, this is a blog!):

Exodus 17:1-7
The story of Exodus is in part the story of a group of people, alienated, oppressed and enslaved in Egypt, who in some way depart from Egypt to make a new life. Whoever these people may have been historically, they have come to be associated with the ancestors of ancient Israel, and their story was, at the very least, adopted by ancient Israel, and held with such significance by ancient Israel that it is part of the sacred texts of that people.
As we consider the historical context of this great Exodus story, then, we must consider several different historical contexts. First we must consider the historical contexts of the events described within the story. In doing so, we will particularly focus on the major differences between the Egypt that these wandering people left, and the desert in which they wander. The next historical context we will focus on is the context in which the story may have been finally written down, during the height of the ancient Israel which so identified with this story. In looking at this historical context we will see what meanings this story may have had for the people who finally recorded it, and what needs they may have brought to the story as the recorded it. Finally we will look at the historical context in which this story was probably gathered up with other stories to make the broader story which we now see as the book of Exodus, and the Torah in which that book is found. These people also found meaning in this story, and also brought their own needs into their treatment of this story.
The story itself describes this wandering group of former Egyptian slaves wandering in the wilderness of desert of Sin, without water. They fight with Moses, their leader, wondering way they were brought out of Egypt to this place, to die of thirst. The miracle of the story is that Moses uses his staff to get water out of a rock, to quench the thirst of these wandering, homeless people. As we place this story in its various historical contexts, we will focus on these events, and how they might have been seen in the various contexts we will discuss.
The first context is the time which the story itself represents. As the story is more myth than history, it is difficult to say exactly when it, or something like it, might have taken place. It could have been somewhere between the Middle and Late Bronze Age, between 2000 BCE (which is far too early) and 1200 BCE (which is probably too late). This is, of course, a roughly 800 year window, which isn't very good if you're looking for history. But here we are not as concerned with history as we are with the meaning that historical context brings to our reading of a story. Even within such a broad window of time we can find some important context.
Egypt during this time was secure in a way that the wilderness of desert of our story would not have been. According to Victor H. Matthews, "Egypt benefited from encircling natural formations," such as the Sahara Desert, the Nile River and the Red Sea. "Only a narrow bridge of land connected Egypt to the Sinai," and so it was on this bridge of land that Egypt concentrated its defenses against possible enemies. This meant that Egypt was, at this time, a relatively safe and secure place, at least militarily. Therefore, one could feel a degree of safety in Egypt which would not have been felt outside of Egypt.
More important to our story, however, is the water. Egypt had the Nile River, which provided it with a rare and precious resource. Because the Nile often flooded, from a very early time Egypt had a relatively easy time growing food, and often had a grain surplus. This combination of fertility and security inside Egypt can be contrasted with the condition the wandering former slaves must have found in the desert wilderness outside of Egypt. They have left one set of problems, their state as oppressed and alienated slaves, for another, more vital set of problems. Say what you will about their former living conditions, it must have been much better than slowly dying of thirst, starvation, and exposure to the elements outside the security and fertility of Egypt.
But while the Exodus story may refer to events which happened in and around ancient Egypt, it was written many generations later, by people in ancient Israel who associated these former Egyptian slaves as their ancestors. These new people, and this new time, brought their own concerns to the story.
It is difficult to know when this story was actually written down, because no original documents have survived. There is, however, a theory that the Torah was compiled from several sources, and that the source most likely to be responsible for the contents of this particular story is the J Source, which dates to the ninth or tenth century BCE. If this is true, then this story was written down in something similar to the form we now have for it inside ancient Israel during its height as a people/nation. Even during this time of success, however, survival was a serious issue. One of the key concerns of ancient Israel, even and especially at its height, was water. There was always the threat of drought or famine looming overhead. As such, the miracle of the water supply in this story would be extremely important to the people who wrote it down.
But, if the story was written at the height of ancient Israel, it was still not compiled until after the fall of Israel. Like the wanderers in the story, the people who compiled this story in perhaps the fifth century BCE were without a land to call home. They were scattered in a land ruled by the Persians. It is in this context that several possible meanings of the story begin to take shape.
One of the problems of being a group that associates itself with a land, and then loses that land, is a crisis of identity. Ancient Israel viewed itself and its history in terms of a relationship with a God who provided it with a land, which in turn provided it with an identity. Under Persian rule that sense of identity must have been disappearing. This story, with its connection to a great past leader (Moses) who, with God's instruction performs a kind of miracle which ensures the survival of the group (bringing water out of the rock) must have spoken to the identity of the group.
Another problem with losing a land that is so associated with the group identity is losing a sense of "home," which is tied to the land. This story speaks to a conflicted sense of home, as it points both backward to Egypt (the former land) and forward to the Land of Promise. Which place, for the people in the story, is home? Is it Egypt, with which they could not identify but in which they could ensure survival? Is it the desert in which they now find a kind of self-directed independence, but no water, food or security? Or is it the Land of Promise, which they have not seen, and may never see? This conflict would speak to a group that has the same sense of alienation from home.
The story would, for these people who may have compiled the story while under Persian rule, also serve as a kind of an explanation for their current situation while providing hope for the future. Most of the people in the story grumble, lack faith, and are at least disrespectful if not outright disobedient. They certainly frustrate Moses, who shares his frustration with God. This situation would speak to a people who at times see their current situation as being brought on by their own disobedience. But the story does not end with them dying of thirst in the desert, and the broader Exodus story does not end with the group as a whole still homeless in the desert. The act of drawing water from the rock provided the doubting wanderers with what they immediately need to ensure their survival, and reminds them that God has not forgotten them. This must speak to a group who may be tempted to see themselves as forgotten by God.
The story has not stopped speaking to people, and, in fact, speaks to me in a powerful way. The main characters in the story have been brought out of one problem and into another. They were enslaved in a foreign land, but God, through Moses, brought them out of that situation. However, they now find themselves in a potentially even worse condition. They are wandering in the wilderness, dying of thirst. This speaks to my own doubt in the God who has delivered me from my past. I often wonder how it is that God could have led me here, to this place where I feel out of place, without a sense of home, and figuratively dying of thirst. The condition of the characters in this story speaks to my own condition, and their doubt and frustration speaks to my own doubt and frustration. But the God who brought them out of Egypt also, through Moses, provides them with water - exactly what they need at the moment. They did not exactly ask for the water, and they certainly weren't very nice about communicating their need. But, despite their behavior, their need was met anyway.
What is particularly interesting to me about this story is that the thirsty wanderers in it look back to Egypt, the land in which, according to the story they were enslaved, with such relative fondness. They have, at least for the moment, forgotten the problems which they had in Egypt, remembering only the water. Their momentary thirst blinds them to their former condition, and causes a longing for that former condition. This speaks to something I experience often; a kind of idealization of the past when faced with present hardships. That is why it is crucial that we see our present condition, whatever it is, as a temporary condition, one of many points on a long journey guided by the God who, through Moses, both delivered us from an oppressed condition and pulled water out of a rock to meet the present need.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Xenophanes' Critique of Religion

I am convinced that one of causes of the Culture War is the tendency of Christians to choose orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right conduct). Christianity has often been reduced to merely a set of statements about God with which one either agrees or disagrees. If one agrees, then they are acceptable, and if they disagree then they are a heretic. Never mind that there is no uniform set of statements which all Christian groups hold as a sort of defining set of statements. Even the ancient ecumenical creeds do not apply to all groups, and so are not truly ecumenical [note: this is particularly true in light of the fact that the beliefs of the earliest Christians - those closest to the time and presence of Jesus - are not included and are even contradicted by the first creeds, which came a couple hundred years later]. Also, nevermind that one's disagreement with a particular set of doctrinal statements may be motivated not by a desire to rebel against God or the church, but rather by a desire honor God and the church by telling the truth as best as one understands it.

Because of the danger of becoming "attached" to doctrine - even good doctrine (by which I mean doctrine that has helped the spiritual condition of believers and sought to bring love and unity to the church) - I will be posting a couple of essays on (roughly) the dangers of "attachment" in religion. The first of these is, as the title of this post indicates, Xenophanes' Critique of Religion.

Xenophanes (roughly 570 - 478 BCE, though his dates are not certain) would have certainly been seen as a "heretic" in his day, as he leveled a scathing critique against the way in which religion was practiced in his day. Here are a few of the remaining fragments of his work, which touches on religion, taken here from Baird and Kaufman's Ancient Philosophy: Fourth Edition (I'm using their numbers, as well):

[2] Homer and Hesiod ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men: theft and adultery and deceiving each other.

[3] Mortals suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own.

[4] But if oxen, horses, and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and fashion works as men do, horses would paint horse-like images of gods and oxen ox-like ones, and each would fashion bodies like their own.

[5] The Ethiopians consider the gods flat-nosed and black; the Thracians blue-eyes and red-haired.

[6] There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or mind.

[7] He sees as a whole, and hears as a whole.

[11] No man knows or ever will know the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, yet oneself knows it not; but seeming is wrought over all things.

[12] Not from the beginning have the gods revealed all things to mortals, but by long seeking men find what is better.

It is said that when philosophers are religious, they are unconventionally religious. If this is so, it should not be surprising. Religion is often conservative, seeking to preserve the values and traditions of the past. But philosophy, by its very nature, is reflective. It challenges the assumptions of past generations. It explores those values and traditions which religion preserves, to see what they really mean. It evaluates them to see if they still have, or ever have had worth. For philosophy, it can be said, nothing is sacred except for the pursuit of truth.

But religion, which is possibly as old as humanity itself, can be understood as the human attempt to encounter, understand, and explain the sacred. And so, some conflict between philosophy and religion - or, at least, between philosophers and conventionally religious people - is probably inevitable. Because of this, and because of the inquisitive and somewhat sacrilegious nature of most philosophers; when philosophers are religious they are often not religious in the way that conventionally religious people would like for them to be religious. They can often, and often rightly, be seen as a threat to religion in its most traditional forms. As such, when philosophers really care about religion, they can offer some of the most stinging critiques of religion.

Xenophanes was, along with Pythagoras and Heraclitus, known as one of the Three Solitary Figures of pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. From the fragments that remain of the works of these three philosophers, it seems safe to say that they each had an interest in and understanding of religion. Heraclitus' near mystical use of the term Logos may have been an influence on the author of the Gospel of John. Pythagoras had his own religious sect, devoted to the contemplation of mathematics as a means by which to purify the soul. But, of these three, the fragments which remain of Xenophanes may be the most religious in nature, and are certainly the most useful to modern religious people.

There are at least three sets of fragments which, when understood together, offer up a very helpful concept and critique of religion. The first set is a single fragment, fragment [2], which stands as a critique of the conventional religion of his time. In it he takes Homer and Hesiod to task for ascribing to the gods traits which would not be acceptable even in humans, much less in the embodiment of the divine. The second set consists of fragments [3], [4], and [5], which stand as a critique of religion in general, or at least concepts of a god or gods, as anthropomorphic. The final set of fragments consists of fragments [11] and [12], which provide us with a very healthy concept of theological humility and religious skepticism.

Of course, some would argue that the two most religiously significant fragments from Xenophanes are ones which I have left out altogether. Those are fragments [6] and [7], which form a very early monotheistic concept of god. They are certainly worth considering, particularly because they stand in such sharp contrast to the polytheistic Greek religion of his day. But I am not considering them here because, while they were certainly radical in their day, they would be seen as fairly conventional today. From them it would be easy to treat Xenophanes the way that the Scholastics treated Plato or Aristotle - as a precursor to Christianity - and that would be fair to neither Xenophanes nor what remains of his work.

So, the first fragment dealing with religion considered here is fragment [2], in which Xenophanes offers his searing critique of Homer and Hesiod and their description of traditional Greek religion. He says that they "ascribed to the gods whatever is infamy and reproach among men." This represents a real problem for their view of religion in part because it contrasts with one of the ideal goals of religion; which is to provide some kind of moral standard for humans, as well as to provide a divine authority for that moral standard. If the gods are not good examples of how one should behave, what does that say of the ethics represented by that religion?

In fragments considered later Xenophanes will argue that people fashion their concept of god after themselves. What, then, does it say about Homer and Hesiod that they crafted gods who exhibit deviant behavior? If one is being charitable, one could claim that they described the gods the way that they did to show that there are no morally perfect beings. The gods, like humans, are flawed. And, because even the gods are flawed, humans should not expect themselves or others to be perfect in any way. Because even the gods are flawed, humans should not look externally to find moral guidance, but rather internally. They don't need to gods to show them who or what to be. The gods aren't even good at that. And something like this might be a very helpful idea. But I wonder if Xenophanes would be impressed by this.

His criticism of Homer and Hesiod is so searing that I doubt he was of a mind to be charitable to their presentation of the gods. After all, he did not say that Homer and Hesiod described gods who weren't perfect. He didn't say that Homer and Hesiod described gods in need of improvement or revision. He didn't criticize them as humanists who lost sight of the divine. He said they gave the gods traits that were full of "infamy and reproach among men." Those are some harsh words from a very harsh critic who does not seem inclined to consider any positive value from Homer and Hesiod - though, of course, we only have fragments from him rather than complete texts.

I imagine, given how he attacks Homer and Hesiod, and given his views about the anthropomorphic nature of ideas about the gods; that Xenophanes would in fact argue that they describe such morally deficient gods in order to justify their own moral deficiencies.

In fragments [3], [4] and [5] Xenophanes builds a kind of argument - or, at least a series of assertions - to demonstrate that all ideas about god or the gods are anthropomorphic. And, for him, this does not have a neutral value. This is a decidedly bad thing. And, not only bad, it is ridiculous. In fragment [3] he all but mocks those who "suppose that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own." The distance between the human and the divine is great, but mortals, to their own disgrace, do not appreciate this.

And, while Xenophanes may or may not have had this in mind; that humans do not appreciate the distance between the human and the divine has caused a great deal of problems within religions. Because people fashion their ideas about god or the gods after their own image (much like, as Xenophanes argues in fragment [4], other animals would if only they had concepts of the gods and a means by which to express those concepts) they often mistake their ideas about god for god. So, in the event that people disagree about the nature of god, or an aspect of god, each supposes not only that other disagrees with them, but in fact that they disagree with god and so are guilty of some kind of blasphemy. This is one reason why there has been so much violence in the name of religion. People are not content merely to disagree. They must impose their views on others because they mistake those views (and themselves) for god.

Of course, while that is true, that may not have been the point that Xenophanes was making. After all, is it fair to read him in light of religious warfare which took place long after he died? And, we do only have fragments of his writing; none of which overtly states the harm done by these arrogant and anthropomorphic concepts of god. But one of the delightful things about Xenophanes' fragments is just that - that they are fragments. And, not only are they fragments, but they are fragments which refuse to spell out a single orthodox interpretation. They are sometimes vague and mysterious, and lend themselves to many interpretations. I like to think that Xenophanes meant for this to be the case. After all, if your writing spells out a single possible interpretation, then it is only of limited use, and only of that limited use for a little while. Once the historical conditions in which you wrote pass, your writing is no longer of help to people. But Xenophanes, by refusing to be pinned down - at least in the fragments which we have - allows his writing to be easily adapted to many different situations.

His religious ideas, and not just his monotheism, become helpful in a time which looks - at least religiously - very little like the time in which he wrote. His descriptions of human ideas about the gods are able to be accurately applied even to current problems within Christianity and other dogmatic monotheistic religions. And, that we fashion the gods (or even the monotheistic God) after our own image is helpful to know. When I am able to realize that I believe what I believe about my God because of who I am and what I want a god to be like, I can see that I have in fact made my own god, in my own image. This god that I have created may in fact have little to do with what God is really like, if there is a god at all. And knowing this allows me to see that I should not become so attached to my views of God. That is unjustified theological arrogance, and it carries with it a number of practical and moral problems.

This sets up the final principle that I can draw from Xenophanes' fragments on religion, and that is that we should maintain a kind of theological humility and a religious skepticism. In fragment [11] he says that "[n]o man knows or ever will know the truth about the gods." In fact, even if someone were to, by some freak accident of the universe, uncover the entire truth; they would not be able to know that they know. Because of this, and because of the fact that our ideas about the gods (or, now, God) come from ourselves, we should maintain our theological humility. There is no reason to say that we know anything about the nature of the gods. There is no reason to think that we can comprehend the divine. And so there is no reason to allow conflicting ideas about the divine to cause the kinds of problems that it causes in the human realm.

Clinging to the illusion of certain knowledge about the divine is not helpful. It is, in fact, harmful. It is the source not only of conflict, but also of stunted moral, spiritual and intellectual development. The gods, according to Xenophanes in fragment [12], have not "revealed all things to mortals." We cannot completely fathom the divine. But, when we do not cling to our own ideas but rather honestly seek out the truth, we "find what is better."

This quest to find "what is better" may be a fruitless quest if what we are looking for is a set of objectively true and comprehensive statements about the divine - or even about anything. But if we are looking to find some kind of meaning, however existential and indescribable, in life, then we will not be disappointed.

These notions of theological humility and religious skepticism may, to some, be as radical today as Xenophanes' critique of the Greek religion of his day probably was when he wrote it. They are also equally profound and helpful. They are not, of course, spelled out in the text. For that reason someone may want to say that Xenophanes had something else in mind when he wrote what he wrote. But, at least for fragments [11] and [12] I cannot imagine what that might be. He clearly does not think that we can know with any degree of certainty anything about the gods. And he does not seem troubled by this. For him the seeking is clearly better than the finding, because if you cannot know anything - or, at least, know that you know anything - about the gods, then all finding (if by finding we mean finding knowledge about the gods) is illusory because there is no knowledge to be found. But, in the end, we find something "better" than that knowledge. What could he mean by that, other than some kind of existential meaning?

And, if no one can know the truth about God, what is the point of religion except to find some meaning in the here and now? Isn't it a quest to find - rather than the stated object of the quest, which is the nature of the divine - yourself? And isn't finding yourself, whatever is ultimately meant by that phrase, much better than merely finding out some facts about some being which is said to exist? If these are the case, and if I am right in saying that Xenophanes has something of value to say about religion, then it is probable that what he meant by some of his cryptic statements is something like what I have described here. But since his words are as mysterious as the gods that each religion tries to describe, in the spirit of theological humility I won't become too attached to my account of Xenophanes' views on religion.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dehumanizing the Enemy: The Cross-Fire of the Culture War

Yesterday a friend of mine sent out a paper in which he very strongly criticized the method of scriptural interpretation that I use. It was not a personal attack against me, as he wrote it to condemn not me, or my method, but a method of scriptural interpretation which I happen (perhaps unbeknownst to him) to use.

I could say that this friend - one of my oldest and dearest friends - is a conservative pastor. And that would be a true statement, since he is theologically conservative, and is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. But my friend cannot be reduced to that label, conservative, which we liberals so often use to discredit others, as they use liberal against us.

If I read the paper my friend sent out yesterday without knowing who wrote it, I would probably post here some kind of rhetoric against it. I could go through it piece by piece and draw out each reach, each stretch, each logical fallacy or historical misrepresentation. If I read it without knowing who wrote it, or without being so close to the author, I could use what one reader has called my "philosophy major tricks" to make the piece look like the work of a total moron.

But this paper, which powerfully attacks and condemns the method of scriptural interpretation which I use, was written by one of my closest friends in the world. So, what should I do?

A few years ago a good friend of mine went off to fight in the war in Iraq. While he was on ship he wrote this, in a letter to me:

[T]he guys all talk about killing ragheads. To them its like a game, just another training exercise, except the targets are shooting back. The targets don't have names or faces or families or friends who love them and want them to come home. They're just part of that "evil regime" that must be overthrown.

My Marine friend was concerned that part of fighting a war necessarily involves dehumanizing the enemy. This is true whether or not the cause or conduct of the war is just. This is true because, in order to kill another human being without hesitation, you must be able to look at them as only a target, rather than a person with rights and attachments just like you.

We say that we are now involved in a Culture War, in which we fight (generally) with words rather than rounds of ammunition, with rhetoric rather than mortars. But do we not here too experience the same temptation to dehumanize our enemy in the name of efficiently advancing our own "just" cause?

My friend's paper bothered me, not because I couldn't handle his arguments (I could), but because of the way in which I wanted to handle his arguments. I wanted to use logic and rhetoric to discredit his position, without mercy or hesitation.

Should we, in this war, lay waste to our own friends, to our own family? And, if the answer is "no" (and I suspect that it is), then are we justified in laying waste to anyone at all? Are not all of us God's children? Are not all of us who claim the name Christian united by the redeeming blood of Christ, which is washing away our sinful natures?

I am concerned about the level of rhetoric in this Culture War. And I am more concerned about my participation in it. I do not repudiate either my positions or my methods, but perhaps I do repudiate the spirit with which I fight this "good" fight.

Quick Update

If you're reading this then I'm sure you've already noticed, but I'll tell you this anyway:

I've updated the layout and format of this blog. Please note the newly redesigned (Cyber)Places to Go sidebar, which has conveniently been subdivided into several different categories. I've also added a new sidebar, Theology In/Of the Culture War, which contains links to my more theological/controversial posts. That way, if you're only interested in the theological, philosophical, ethical and historical arguments on hot button issues, you can skip straight to that stuff and ignore all the fluff.

On the subject of "I Still Need an Editor," or maybe "Proof That I've Always Needed an Editor":

While I was re-doing the (Cyber)Places to Go sidebar I decided to include links to the official websites of some of my favorite musicians. I've always loved the bizarre jazz pianist Chick Corea (note the spelling, as I didn't), so I wanted to include a link to his site. So, to see if he had a site, I decided to Google his name. I typed "Chick Correa," and got very excited (unduly excited!) to see that the very first hit was a paper which I wrote on Miles Davis for a History of African American Music course in college.

Why, you might ask, would the number one hit on Google for "Chick Correa" produce an obscure paper by yours truly? Simple. I evidently can't spell, but at least I'm consistent in my misspelling. Both in my paper and in my query to Google I spelled Chick Corea's name with two r's instead of one.

My favorite college professor used to say (I'm sure she still does, but I don't have to hear it anymore), "Sloppy editing looks like sloppy thinking." I hope that isn't true, because I am perpetually in need of a good editor. Any takers?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Father God, Creator God

I was sitting on the couch reading my book when my son Adam (the first man, the archetypical man) crawled up to me and tugged on my sweater. "Dog," he said, or perhaps asked. "Dog, dog, dog, dog... dog."

"Dog" is one of the few words that he knows. To him it applies not to all dogs or to the Platonic form "dog," but rather to our dog, whom we call "Pepper" and he calls "dog."

"Dog," Pepper is one of his favorite friends. As he quizzically repeated "dog" his eyes, after catching mine, scanned the living room from corner to corner, looking for the dog. Finding no dog, he looked up at me, as though I were supposed to do something about this.

Now might be a good time to get into the psychology and mythology of childhood. I could here tell you that little children idealize their parents, building them up into near deities who can accomplish would-be-impossible things and do no wrong. If I were feeling particularly Freudian I could even speculate that we don't really lose our desire to have someone above us to whom we can turn like we turned to our parents until they proved to us beyond all possibility of doubt that they too are human, they too are mortal, they too are imperfect and impermanent.

But you know all of that already, and you know that it is all speculative nonsense.

Adam turned to me to produce a dog, and so I did. I called out "Pepper," in a warm, welcoming, affirming voice (and the dog knows my voice is not always like that when I call out his name) and then whistled. Magically, the dog appeared.

I wonder what that moment was like for my son. I wonder if he thought that I, like God, called the dog into being, creating him ex nihlo. Or perhaps he saw me call the dog in from the Void, the Abyss. Perhaps while he was gone the dog had fallen into Sheol, and I raised him.

Or perhaps I simply solved my son's small problem, and he thought no more of it than that.


I am not a critic. My wife thinks that I am, and she has good evidence for this belief. I have a music library that is obscene, a movie collection which borders on idolatry, and I am (in)famous for my collection of books [note: my Dad once bought me an engraving with a quote by Desiderius Erasmus, which read "When I get a little money, I but BOOKS; if any is left I buy food and clothes." I'm not sure if it was a gift or a commentary. Either way it is proudly dispayed in my office at home, right next to the bookshelves]. Further, I interpret my world through these media. I value creativity, but I use the creative expressions of others to communicate rather than actually coming up with something myself. Additionally, I have an opinion on everything. So I sure look like a critic. But I am not a critic.

A critic, ideally, actually knows what they're talking about. And when it comes to music or movies I don't, no matter how much I try to bluff or mask. Like Charlie, the Catherine Zeta Jones character in High Fidelity, I'm always talking but never really saying anything, masking ignorance with boldness.

Yesterday we saw the movie RENT. I know, it's about time. We meant to see it when it first came out, but since our son was born we haven't gone out much. But yesterday we were staying with my parents in my hometown, Lexington, KY, so we had free babysitting. In fact, I think Mom and Dad (Ma and Pops, as they are now known) would have begged us to leave the house so they could have their youngest grandchild for a while without his parents (to whom he clings desperately) around to get in the way of their villainous plan to spoil him rotten.

A few years ago, when the musical RENT was on a national tour, it stopped by Lexington. My parents have season tickets to the Opera House, so they invited us to come stay with them and see the play. Watching the movie reminded me of how much I've changed in the last couple of years. The movie isn't much different than the musical, but the eyes that watched it were.

When I saw the musical I was still recovering from a bad bout of fundamentalism. I was no longer a "fundie" (what a lovely and condescending word), but I was still operating within that paradigm, having not yet discovered a new (old) way of being Christian. This paradigm, which was at the very least conservative and evangelical, colored my viewing of RENT.

As such I saw RENT (at the Opera House as a musical) as principally a moral argument. This involved two assumptions:

1. That RENT, like every work of art (as I saw it at the time) was principally a kind of argument, a propaganda piece. This is a common mistake made by those who think they understand religion and who certainly don't understand art. Azar Nafisi's wonderful Reading Lolita in Tehran makes this clear as she details the Iranian theocracy's approach to art. Art, in this mentality, is judged not as a creative expression but as a tool through which one communicates ideals in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. This is why "Christian" works of art are so often so bad. Rather than being creative expressions they are evangelical tools.

I saw RENT as a kind of inverse evangelical tool, a subversive piece designed primarily to undermine the values I still held.

2. The second assumption dealt with the nature of the argument presented; that it was primarily moral in nature. Like Mame, a musical which advocates that one tolerate anything but moral absolutes, I saw RENT as promoting a set of values which intentionally ran contrary to my own.

Because I brought these assumptions to my viewing of the musical, I never really understood the attraction. Sure the music was catchy, and sure the performance of it was both charismatic and inspired. But for me it could ultimately be reduced to an argument for an obviously destructive lifestyle. The final straw came just before Intermission, with the great tribute to/ funeral for Bohemia, La Vie Bohem. Couldn't these people see that they were advocating rebellion for the sake of rebellion, which would ultimately lead to anarchy and destruction? Sure I had rebelled against authority from time to time, and sure some of those rebellions were less ideological and more anarchical. But I wasn't proud of it. I didn't think I was right.

Seeing RENT again, this time in the form of Chris Columbus' magnificent film, reminded me of how much I had missed the point the first time. When I first saw RENT I thought that art needed some kind of explanation, some kind of rational account. I was even working on a comprehensive philosophy of art as "creative expression" with both a cognitive and non-cognitive content. But now I see art as something which humans do because we have no other choice.

In the movie RENT one of the characters (I think it was the film maker) says, "The opposite of war is not peace, it is creation." To the extent that art can be explained, this is a much better explanation. Art, if it is anything, is an affirmation of creation over destruction.

But more than that, art simply is. It is creativity for its own sake rather than for the sake of some noble cause. It may communicate, but it is not communication.

I once saw RENT as an ode to destructive living. But as a saw the movie I realized that perhaps it is instead an affirmation of life in the face of death, an affirmation of love in the face of judgment, an affirmation of creation in the midst of destruction. While there is a moral component to this (creation is obviously better than destruction, love is obviously better than judgment) it is not primarily either moral or an argument. It is simply an act of creation.

Most interesting to me was the relationship between these three pairs of opposites:
1. Life and death
2. Love and judgment
3. Creation and destruction

As RENT tells the story of people living with and around AIDS in New York City, death looms large. Some of the most moving scenes in the movie involve death. These scenes include the funeral of Angel (and if any character represents the affirmation of life, love and creativity it is Angel) and apparent death of Mimi, and the vanishing of several members of the AIDS support group.

But, in these scenes death does not win out over life. This is, of course, most obvious in the stunning resurrection of Mimi, brought back by a song, and the love of a dead friend. But even in cases where, on a literal level, death does win, it still doesn't win. This is because death is used by the living as motivation to live more fully, to love more deeply, and to create more urgently.

I could go through the movie scene by scene and bring out these themes within the context of my argument, but I am not a critic, and my purpose here is not as much critical as it is autobiographical. When I saw RENT the first time, as a stage musical in Lexington's Opera House, I saw it through a particular lens. When I saw it the second time (oddly enough also in Lexington) in the form of Chris Columbus' movie I also saw it through a lens, though it was a new lens of a different color.

We see everything through a particular lens or glass or mirror. The apostle Paul speaks to this when he says, in I Corinthians 13:12

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

In this dim (if not outright dark) time between "now" and "then," colored as our vision is by the lens of our own bias, dirty as the mirror is in which we see an image distorted by our own ignorance; what are we to make of our limited, biased, ignorant nature? How are we to live if we cannot affirm and impose absolutes?

These are questions which bothered me the first time I saw RENT. It demanded that I see homosexuals and drug addicts and transgendered persons as first and foremost persons rather than labels. And it demanded that I accept and affirm their basic personhood. To me this called me to deny the moral absolutes which were imposed on me by the church, and I couldn't do that.

My vales have changed, as has my approach to viewing art. As such, I can now accept the personhood of everyone without reducing them to labels. I can now love individuals without judging them based on their lifestyle decisions. And, I can- understanding that RENT is more a story set to music than it is a moral argument - have a fuller understanding of what it is that RENT communicates while also understanding that it is not principally communication, but art.

I am not a critic, and so I won't give RENT "two thumbs up" or "four stars" or any other such nonsense, as though we could quantify the value of art. But I can say that I liked it very much. And my wife liked it very much. It kept us under its spell for however long it lasted (time meant little while we were in the theater), and sent us home challenged with our changing but still limited and biased lenses.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


In memory of Alvine Adams Clausen, October 16, 1915 - January 9, 2006. She is shown here with her great-grandson, my son, Adam Christopher Baker. We named him Adam after her maiden name, which she kept as her middle name. (Though she always said that if we were going to name him after that we should just call him "Adams" rather than shortening it to Adam. Right before her death she pulled my wife aside and admitted that, OK, maybe "Adams" would have sounded funny!)

Alvine was almost 89 when my wife and I announced that we were going to have a baby. Because of her advanced age and some recent health problems we were just hoping and praying that she would live to see his birth. But, stubborn and vibrant as she was, she not only lived to see his birth, but was his favorite playmate for most of his first year.

The first time Alvine saw her great-grandson Adam she asked him, "Brother" (she called everyone either "Brother" or "Sister", and was in turn called "Sister" by almost everyone who spoke to her or of her) "Brother, where are your teeth?"

Adam, of course, did not say anything in response, so his mother explained that his teeth hadn't come in yet. Alvine looked him over, smile gently, and said, "That's OK. I don't have any teeth either."

Adam and Alvine got along spendidly, perhaps because they were on about the same level. Whenever anyone saw them playing together they would make some comment about how life is a cycle, and how we are the same coming in as we are going out.

Every Thursday I would take Adam to Oldham County to stay with his Me Me and his Great Grandma. He is a very shy kid, and doesn't like many people not named Mama or Daddy. But every time he saw his Great Grandma he would squeal with delight. If we tried to hand him to anyone else, he would scream and refuse to go, but if he saw Alvine he would try to jump into her arms, even though, of course, she couldn't catch him.

She had a dry erase board in her bedroom to help her remember what day it was, and what was going on that day. Every Thursday Dana, her personal caregiver, would put a picture of Adam on the board, along with a sign that said "Adam is coming today. WATCH OUT FOR BABY KISSES!" He loved her so much he would just slobber all over her.

Every time he kissed her she would say, "Brother, you don't want to kiss me, my face is dirty." But you could see in her eyes how much she enjoyed the attention.

At the end of last week she fell into a coma, from which she never emerged. At that point we were making it a point to visit her almost every day. When we went out to her house Adam would leap to the ground and crawl as fast as he could (faster than I can run!) to her room to see her. The first time we visited her after she had fallen into the coma he did the same thing, but when he got to her room he could tell something was wrong. He squealed out his usual greeting, but she didn't respond. He tugged on her bed, but she didn't respond. He crawled up into bed with her, but she still didn't respond.

He started crying, and reached out his arms for his mother to pick him up. He knew, he just knew, that something was terribly wrong. At that moment, though she had not yet died, Adam lost his favorite playmate.

Alvine Clausen died yesterday while we were in the car on the way to visit her. By the time we reached her house several other family members had arrived, and were congregating in the living room, reminiscing about the life of this precious saint. Adam can only say a couple of words, and somehow I doubt "Dada" or "dog" could capture the depths of his emotions, or do justice to his memories of his first and favorite playmate.

But yesterday Adam honored the memory of his great grandmother, not by saying anything profound, but simply by looking at those who had gathered to mourn, and smiling. His smile was contagious, and reminded us of her love.

Adam and Alvine were, when they knew each other, bookends, marking the beginning and the end of life. Their love for each other helped me to see just how joyous life is, in the middle no less than in the beginning or the end.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Goodnight, Dear Saint

In memory of Alvine Adams Clausen, October 16, 1915 - January 9, 2006. She is pictured here with her granddaughter, my wife, Sami Baker.

My wife was born in Arlington, Virginia, to a single mother working many temp jobs trying to provide for her new, unexpected bundle of joy. When she was about three years old she moved from that suburb of our nation's capital to live with her grandmother in a small farm house in Goshen, Kentucky. The house she was raised in did not have central air or heat. It was instead heated by two giant stoves. She tells stories of her grandmother warming blankets on these stoves before she went to bed. It was a great treat for her to be "snuggled" (as she says) in those freshly warmed blankets.

My wife also tells stories of this spry, saintly woman racing between buildings on the family farm with her young granddaughter. I like to picture Alvine chasing Sami, perhaps with a stick in her hand, pressing her to move faster and to do better.

Because she was raised by her grandmother (along with her mother, who moved back home to join her daughter about a year after they were separated) my wife is in many ways the last of a dying generation. Not only did she grow up without central heat, but she used to go out into the yard with her grandmother to hang the wash on a clothesline to dry. And, even though plumbing had been added to the house, her grandmother used to put a "pot" (like a bedpan) under each bed in case you had to go to the bathroom. [note: because of this I finally know what is meant when you say that someone "doesn't have a pot to piss in"]

Alvine truly was a saintly woman. She was the kindest, gentlest soul that I have ever met. But every life must come to an end, and just before 5 o' clock this afternoon she breathed her last, and peacefully passed away.

I would love to list my favorite memories of her here. I would love to write something profound on the significance of her life. I would love to honor her. But right now grief and exhaustion have robbed me of my words. I met her well past her prime, but I could still catch an occasional glimpse of the saintly woman who was such a legend in her family, her church and her community.

I ate many, many meals at her table. In fact, while my wife and I were dating I must have gained twenty pounds, mostly due to her country cooking. I never got to sleep in the house with the stoves, as it was replaced by the "new" house in 1986. I never got to pee (she wouldn't approve of my vulgar use of the word "piss") in any pots, and I never got to hang laundry. But I was blessed with the chance to know the woman who - along with her daughter - raised my wife to be the wonderful woman she is today.

When I look at my wife I see Alvine's legacy to me. I loved her, and she loved me. Of course, the great thing about her is that she loved everybody. But she loved each of us uniquely. You couldn't help but feel special and loved when you were around her.

My words cannot convey what a blessing she was. She was our light, reflecting the light and love of God. She lived a good life, and died a brave death. She will be missed.

Goodnight, dear saint.
Sleep tight, dear saint.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Email to Heather

Last week my friend Heather called me to relate a series of conversations she's had with her brother, who identifies himself as an athist. He is troubled by the lack of early sources outside Christianity writing about Jesus. After we talked about this for a little while she asked me to send her an email with the kinds of things I was saying over the phone.

This morning I sat down to write her a brief email. Two hours later, exhausted, I finally finished it. I was planning to write something for this blog today, on a similar subject, but now I don't have the time or the energy. So instead I am placing a copy of that email on this blog.

Much of the historical content in it comes from Hans Kueng's ("ue" = u umlaut, since the program I write this in doesn't have umlauts) mammoth Christianity: Essence, History and Future, though some of it comes from David Chidester's Christianity: A Global History. [note: some also came from lectures by Bob Urekew and Roy Fuller at Indiana University Southeast, and by Kathryn Johnson at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Sorry I forgot to mention that earlier. Scholars do not get paid nearly enough to have their work appear uncredited in some hack's blog!]


First off, while you should be getting a formal invitation in the mail later on, you and yours (Dave and especially Noah) are hereby invited to Adam's first birthday party. The party will be at our house in Louisville on Saturday, January 28. You'll get more information when your invitation arrives, as we don't yet know what time the party will be or what (if anything) you should bring.

If you insist on bringing a gift for my spoiled brat, please bring him a book. He is, after all, my son, so that should be exactly what he wants, right? You are certainly not required to bring a gift, and it is not in any way expected that you will.

Now, on to business:

To be able to fully answer your brother's question (or is more of a concern?) I have to know specifically what bothers him. I'm guessing that it is a lack of historical evidence to back up the extraordinary claims which Christians make about Jesus (particularly miracles stories and especially the resurrection). You said that he is bothered about a lack of references to Christ outside of Christianity, though I hope he doesn't doubt, at the very least, that a man named Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century and was at the center of a reform movement within Judaism which eventually became its own religion. That, at the very least, is not questioned by any reputable scholars of history or religion in antiquity.

So I assume that when he says that he wants someone who is not a Christian to, in the earliest days of Christianity, make some reference to it; that what he really wants is some kind of outside confirmation of the extraordinary claims made by Christians of their Christ. Is that a safe assumption?

His concern - if I have it correctly - is not an uncommon one. The feeling is that you can't trust the people who were part of a movement to accurately report on their own movement, because they are biased and have an agenda. If, for instance, I was leading a new religious group which made incredible claims, you wouldn't buy my claims just because I was making them. You wouldn't buy them just because my brothers or my friends, or potentially brainwashed members of my movement were confirming them. You would want some kind of outside authority to verify my claims. And, the more ridiculous my claims, the more authoritative (and objective) you would want that outside verifier to be.

The claims about Jesus which were made by the earliest Christians (though they are not entirely the same claims which are made by Christians today, since our Christology - our understanding of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ of God - has changed over time) are ridiculous claims; extraordinary claims. So your brother feels, I'm guessing, that it is only reasonable to demand that they be verified by some kind of outside authority, like perhaps an ancient historian or a Roman official.

There are, however, a few problems with this. First, our concept of "history" as a (semi)objective social science is a very modern one which 1.) did not exist in the time of Christ, and 2.) is coming to be challenged by post modernity. I'll flesh those out more:

1.) I can't say exactly when it is that history became a social science, but I can say that our approach to it was greatly changed by the so-called Enlightenment which started in the 17th century. It was only then that objectivity became the goal of those reporting history.

Josephus is hailed as a great historian of the first century, but he was not a historian as we understand the term. He was a general in the Jewish army during the Jewish revolt of 67-73 CE (the most significant moment was the destruction of the Temple, and as such the destruction of ancient Judaism, which was replaced with rabbinical Judaism) who was defeated and captured by the imperial Roman army. In captivity he turned on his own people, divulging secrets which helped the Roman army put down the rebellion. He must have comforted himself with the undeniable fact that the Romans were going to win anyway.

For his betrayal of his own people we was rewarded by the Romans with leniency, some money, and merely house arrest. He did his "historical" writings while under Roman supervision, in the employ of the Romans. He had at least two aims:

i.) To help the Roman empire understand his own people.
ii.) To please his Roman captors by glossing over their extraordinarily rough treatment of the Jews.

I mention this not to discredit Josephus, whose writings have given us a glimpse of life in Palestine under Roman occupation; but rather to discredit the notion that he is a "historian" in the sense that we understand the term. He was not objective in any sense, nor did he value objectivity. Like the Gospel writers and in fact all other writers in antiquity, he had an agenda, and if you know his agenda you can see how his agenda colored his work.

2.) The post-modern critique of the modern concept of "objective" history is a simple one: that objectivity is totally impossible when you are dealing with humans. You can achieve a sort of relative objectivity, but even that is only possible when you acknowledge up front your potential biases and account for them. When you look at post-Enlightenment "modern" work you see many different biases which go unacknowledged by the "objective" scholar. I could outline them here, but at a certain point that sort of thing gets tedious. This isn't a thesis, but just an email to a friend, so I'm sure you'll grant the obvious bias which creeps into academia under the noses of the academics who see themselves as objective.

So the first problem with getting an entirely objective account of Jesus from anywhere near the time in which he lived and died is simple: objectivity is impossible, and wasn't even valued at the time.

But, your brother is not just troubled by the lack of an objective account; he is troubled by the lack of almost any account outside the early Christian movement. But, of course, that no one outside the Jesus movement was writing about Jesus should not be too surprising. Jesus was, in his lifetime, a rather insignificant figure. At the absolute longest he taught for only about three years, and some good scholars (even within Christianity) argue that he may have taught for less than a year.

In his lifetime he drew relatively few followers. He lived in a time of great religious and apocalyptic fervor in the Jewish community. Messiahs were popping up, leading small revolts, and getting executed every few years. There were, in fact, within 100 years of Jesus countless Messianic movements in the Jewish community under Roman occupation. There are really only two things which, initially, separate Jesus from the other so-called Messiahs of his time.

1.) He did not lead a violent uprising against Rome. Much has been made of the way in which Jesus contradicted the Messiah model. Christian triumphalists which proclaim that while the Jews were awaiting their militant Messiah God sent the real thing in the form of a man of peace (though Christians ought not get too haughty on the subject of violence in the name of God since, in the Crusades they perfected it!). Historically we can say that Messianic movements were in fact violent in nature. This was mostly due to the Jewish chafing under Roman occupation. When people are oppressed they want to throw off their oppressor, and they see violence as the way in which this is accomplished.

Jesus, however, was the model on which Gandhi based his non-violent resistance, and we saw how effective that was both in India and, as it was appropriated by MLK, in the American Civil Rights Movement. In this respect Jesus was very different from the other Messiah figures of his day. He, like them, however, met a very violent end. This brings us to the other initial thing which distinguishes Jesus from the other Messiah figures around the Jewish community in first century Palestine.

2.) Despite being crucified like all of the other Messianic threats perceived by the Roman empire, Jesus has in a sense survived. I am not yet talking about the resurrection, that ridiculous claim which certainly causes your brother great difficulty. Rather I am talking about the fact that, though we know that there were many other Messiah figures in the time of Christ, we do not know anything about them. In most cases we don't even know their names. There are no records of what, if anything, they taught. None of their movements survived their death. But the Jesus movement, though it has of course changed a great deal in the past two millennia, survives.

But it almost did not, which brings us to another reason why it is not surprising that there are no early records of Jesus or the movement which grew up around him outside the movement itself. Within the Roman empire Christianity began as a small reform movement within a rebellious minority religion. Jesus had very few followers in his lifetime, and all of them were Jews. The earliest Christians remained connected to the Jewish community and worshipped every Sabbath at the Temple. They eventually began to celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, but even then the first generation added that to their Sabbath rather than replacing the Sabbath with it.

The first Christian were a collection of Jews who, in some way or another, identified Jesus as the Messiah (Hebrew), the Christ (Greek). I could here get into early Christology (the study of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ) but again that seems tedious for our purposes. If you'd like to know how the view of Jesus as the Christ changed from the earliest Jewish Christians to Hellenistic Christians to the Medieval Catholics to the Reformation, etc., then we'll talk about it sometime. In the meantime just understand that many people have historically meant many things when they said that Jesus is the Christ, and that there is no entirely uniform view which represents all of Christianity, no matter what your pastor says. The earliest Christians, the disciples and the apostles that he so reveres, did not see the role of Christ in the same way that he does.

But we're losing focus. The point is that Christianity began as a small sect of a minority religion, with very few members, all of whom would have identified themselves first and foremost as Jews. It is no wonder that the Roman empire could not at first distinguish them from the Jewish community in which they lived and worshipped. But, for at least two reasons they began to be distinguished from the Jews.

1.) People like the apostle Paul began reaching out to Gentiles, which created a real problem. With Christianity as a Jewish sect, to become a Christian was to become a Jew. For women this was not all that difficult, but for men it was. This is because Jewish men are to be circumcised This is bad enough for small children, as I'm sure you remember from Noah's circumcision. But for adults it was nearly impossible. This was a tremendous obstacle, and it kept Judaism from being effective in their evangelical efforts.

But Paul (and others like him) began to understand Jesus as not just the Messiah or Christ of Israel, but as a more universally redemptive figure. As such Paul saw no reason for Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order to become Christians. (This set up the biggest conflict in the early church, but I don't have the time or energy to deal with that here.) Gentiles started converting to Christianity without converting to Judaism, creating for the first time a group of Christians who were not Jews. This, along with tensions between Jews who were Christians and Jews who were not Christians, led to the eventual expulsion of Christian Jews from the Jewish community. (This, in turn led to the nasty and inexcusable anti-Semitism which was so prevalent in Christendom after Christians came to power.)

2.) Christians, at the same time, had a great excuse to distance themselves from Jews. This excuse was the great Jewish Revolt, which lasted from 67-73 CE. This revolt was doomed to fail from the beginning, but the first few years were not entirely bad. However, by 70 CE the war was turning nasty. Rome, sick of the persistent Jewish problem (Jews notoriously refused to assimilate into Roman society and adopt Roman values) destroyed the Jewish Temple, the very center of the religion and their identity as a distinct people. Christians seeing this did not want to meet the same fate, and began a campaign to be seen as distinct from Jews in the eyes of Rome. It is only after this campaign that it is possible for the Roman Empire to see Christianity as anything other than a small, insignificant Jewish movement.

The first reference to Christianity in any written report from an official in the Roman Empire (for this purpose the work of Josephus doesn't count since a.) he treated Christianity as a part of Judaism, and b.) he was not part of the Roman power structure) is found in the letter from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in 112 CE. Romans did have some dealings with Christians prior to this, though there is no written record of their opinions of Christianity until this letter. (Nero, for instance, famously had Christians burned as scapegoats for a fire he started in 64 CE, and Domitian is said to have persecuted Christians from 81-96 CE for refusing to take an oath to him.) In other words, your brother is right that there are no early records of Christianity from within the Roman Empire near the time of Christ, though I think that he is wrong to be troubled by this as the Jesus movement was so small at that time that you couldn't expect the over-extended Roman officials to notice.

So the only early record we have of Jesus or the movement which followed him comes from that movement itself. And, of course what they wrote about him is biased. The Gospels, for instance, are not treated by scholars as historical records, but rather as evangelical tools. And one should be a little bit suspicious of the content of evangelical tools. It is quite possible that they do not entirely accurately present history. But, they do reflect history. They are, in fact, the only early written record of the man who has come to be seen as the most significant figure in Western history.

The most troubling claim in them is the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, and it is this claim that I think is perhaps most difficult for your brother to accept. What are we to make of obviously biased documents claiming that physically impossible things have happened? If a new religious group claimed, without any external verification, that their founder had been raised from the dead we would probably be a little bit more than just suspicious. We would find the whole thing to be ridiculous, belonging in the Weekly World News rather than the New York Times (though the Times is evidently not immune to the scandal of fiction masquerading as solid reporting!).

But we can, at the very least, say that the early Christian movement survived only because they had some kind of experience of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It is this Easter encounter which, whatever it ways, redeemed the scandal of the cross and paved the way for Christianity to survive what every other Messianic movement could not: the crucifixion of their leader. The resurrection, however it is understood, is the foundation of Christianity, and to treat accounts of it merely as historical forgeries crafted by religious con artists out to trick the general public is to overlook how real the resurrection experience was for those who were part of the earliest Christian movement.

We cannot use history to say that Christ was bodily raised from the dead. We cannot use science to say it either. But we can use, at the very least, the power of religious experience to proclaim the resurrection. It was the resurrection which revived a failed movement and made it arguably the most powerful religion on the earth. It was the resurrection, and my experience of it, which revived and transformed me. You too, as you claim the name of our risen Lord and Savior, have experienced the resurrection. So, on this point, do not argue with your brother on historical grounds. In fact, do not argue with him at all. Rather model the power of the resurrection for him.

The arguments for and against the existence of God are a wash, no matter what people like Josh McDowell say. We believe in God first and foremost not because we are rationally convinced of God's existence, but because our experience of God provides our lives with meaning. The same is true for the resurrection of Christ. If we grant the assumptions of modernity (and in general we must) then it is impossible for the man Jesus to be raised from the dead. But given the power of the resurrection experience in the lives of those how have had it, we might want to grant that even the most irreversible laws of physics must have some sort of exception. But our willingness to grant this exception depends purely on the meaning which our faith brings to our lives.

Here then, whether or not the resurrection happened, it must be treated as a non-literal event. It must be treated as a myth which provides meaning, even if it is also history.

More later, I'm sure; preferably in person or over the phone instead of via email. I'm sure I'll need to explain some of this, but I had to get it down first.