Saturday, 5 January 2008

opinions before Epiphany

The Church Times leader this week is Wisdom from the East?

Giles Fraser writes in the Church Times about why Christianity needs to ditch Plato.

Christopher Howse tells us in the Daily Telegraph What Hrabanus Maurus says about doves.

As Christians celebrate the Epiphany, it’s the people not the presents that matter, argues Chris Chivers in the Guardian’s Face to Faith.

Jonathan Sacks writes in The Times that you should Count your blessings and begin to change your life.

And from before Christmas, there is this interesting article in The Times by Alan Franks in which Terry Eagleton explains why a Marxist critic has written about Jesus Christ and the Gospels.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 9:53am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion
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One recent contemplation, which parallels some of these articles postings, as well as some "game theory" is "Why aren't lemmings extinct?".

Here, we have a species that purportedly has flock behaviour every year that leads to masses running off a cliff with other like-minded lemmings.

Yet, lemmings are not extinct.

But the lemmings who do not jump off the cliff (evidence by their very existence) do have offspring who do jump off the cliff?

So, if all lemmings jump off the cliff, why do some lemmings remain? And why do those remaining lemmings have offspring who do jump off the cliff?

To bring it back to a religious context, why would souls the calibre of Joseph, Leah, Noah or Moses bother to save a Jewish remnant (or any other part of humanity) if their descendants are also going to jump off the cliff?

Postscript - maybe souls of that calibre save a remnant not because sin is going to end, but so that this manifestation of Creation continues and souls learns some basic lessons that can't be learnt at other levels of reality.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 11:05am GMT

I usually agree with Giles Fraser, but he is so far off here that I barely know where to begin.

First of all, the reference to "Plato" is misleading. Early Christianity was indeed deeply influenced by Hellenistic thought, but there were many different schools of Greek philosophy which had developed by the time the Fourth Gospel was written, and more developments still by the time of the early Fathers. There is evidence of a substantial Stoic influence in a number of New Testament document such as the Household Codes in the Pauline letters. The use of the word "logos" in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel could be a reflection of Stoical thought, though the term was widely used by various Greek thinkers. By the later period, it is the thought of Plotinus, what scholars generally call Neo-Platonism, which is important. Neo-Platonism differs from the ideas found the the Dialogues in a number of different ways, and it is hardly fair to impute the authoritarian politics which may or may not be found in The Republic to the Neo-Platonists. It is a cheap shot.

But it is even more troubling to me that Fraser is so dismissive of the willingness of early Christians to engage the dominant intellectual traditions of their era and to incorporate some of those into theology. We should be looking to this as a model for our own day when we need to incorporate insights from the natural and social sciences into our theological thought. Christians cannot and must not live in a theological ghetto. We do not have to find the insights of Neo-Platonism normative for us today, but their intellectual openness is.

Posted by: John Bassett on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 3:24pm GMT

Interested in Terry Eagleton there on Jesus and the revolutionary aspect. I have a book by Milan Machovec, a Marxist Looks at Jesus, which without considering any of these revolutionary parallels is the best use of gospels material to get at the historical, supernatural and expectant Jesus. The liberal humanist Jesus is always something of a mistake. Giles Fraser's attempt to decouple Christianity and Platonism is indeed a tough one, and it leads people like me into being accused of non-realism when this is done. The Pope knows what he is doing when he says it is no accident or option that Christian revelation comes through Greek culture. It is indeed an option, and there are many options for understanding Christianity, if there is a "thing" called Christianity.

Posted by: Pluralist on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 3:29pm GMT

I think you're overstating it John Bassett. I mean, yes there is more Greek in it than Platonism, but Platonism is the big one, and shedding that is precisely to get into social sciences and other thought forms.

This is why I liked Peter Owen Jones' programme last might on BBC 2, another form of opinion by doing. My own liberal syncretism is also an engagement with the other, and of course I have blogged about this today:

http://pluralistspeaks.blogspot.com/2008/01/syncretistic-liberal-catholicism.html

This pulls together quite a few connections of mine: my local church attendance and how I understand its activity, something from conversations with the parish priest, connecting with the Liberal Rite, and background in the Unitarians and Western Buddhism.

Posted by: Pluralist on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 5:14pm GMT

There's some really fascinating stuff out there about the differences between Hebrew thinking and world views to those of the Greek.

I went looking to find a good article and this one looks reasonably succinct but effective: http://www.presenttruthmag.com/archive/XXIX/29-2.htm

Much Greek thinking "...conceives of salvation as the freeing of the soul from its entanglement in the physical world that it may wing its way back to the heavenly world." This premise underpins puritanical religious paradigms e.g. salvation by complying with rituals and laws and prescribed boundaries and authority.

"The biblical dualism is utterly different from this Greek view. It is religious and ethical, not cosmological... Salvation never means flight from the world to God; it means, in effect, God's descent from heaven to bring man in historical experience into fellowship with himself… It does not mean the gathering of the souls of the righteous in heaven, but the gathering of a redeemed people on a redeemed earth in perfected fellowship with God."

Biblical dualism is present in the imagery of Isaiah (e.g. the new Jerusalem and the everlasting covenant of peace), Micah (Daughter of Zion redeemed and threshing), Hosea (God will call those not his people, his people and they will call him their God), Daniel (end times struggles leading to God's authority made fully manifest in this world), Jeremiah (being sent into exile and having their lot thrown in with the masses, but eventually being redeemed, along with the masses which the Jews live amongst), Zechariah (the two annointed to serve the Lord of all the earth), Ezekiel (there will be justice for all and no one will be able to palm the consequences of their choices onto another), Habbakuk (write a scroll to testify of the fierce nations that will arise and be appalled at the loss of life and environmental sustainability, but you will be healed once you've fully tasted and appreciated the bitterness of the fruit that you had sown).

Judaic thinking is all about accepting that this is God's world and that God wants this world to exist and to be occupied. We are called by God to make this world the most habitable we can, not just for ourselves but also for our neighbours, and even our enemies as well as all other life on this planet.

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 11:28pm GMT

To continue

It is useful to be aware of Plato and Greek thinking, but that does not mean one has to accept their premises in their entirety. Wisdom is recognising that which is good and useful and using it accordingly, it also requires recognising the areas of weakness to be avoided, or where overuse can actually be harmful rather than beneficial. Wisdom involves avoiding extremes and absolutism, it necessitates diversity and movement and change. Wisdom is recognising that the paradigms have brought us to the brink of extinction and that we must root out and prune those things which made it possible for this to get so bad.

Some obvious examples are "just war" theory; over-reliance on rituals and laws; elitism which tolerates or even condones the suffering of others, justice without mercy, complacency and hypocritical self-righteousness.

Before we could heal the masses, we first had to heal the spiritual teachers. There were teachers who had eyes and ears and easily adopted the new paradigms. There are still some who can not see that the consequences of their teachings is exactly what takes societies into famines unprepared, leads to the collapse of ecosystems, exacerbates the spread of disease, and allows tyranny to keep re-occurring in ever escalating degrees of atrocity.

Re-read Proverbs 8 & 9 e.g. "I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just... I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.... For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the LORD. But whoever fails to find me harms himself; all who hate me love death.”

"If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you; if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer".

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Saturday, 5 January 2008 at 11:30pm GMT

I'm with John Basset here, although also usually a great fan of Giles Fraser.
It seems to me that the authors of the Christian sacred texts were imbued with the zeitgeist of their time, which was a blend of neo-Platonism & stoicism & other things that "everybody knew." If you compare the beliefs of ancient Israel with those of their contemporary Greeks, you compare them not with Plato, but with Homer. If you examine the later belief systems of the Gentile world at the time of our Lord, you get something very close indeed to the Pauline presuppositions. Cultures in contact tend to work that way.
Which is not to say that I think that supplementing neo-Platonic assumptions is not important -- I think it is crucial -- but I think that something very like a "moderate realist metaphysic" is in the essence of the earliest formation of the faith -- certainly in the Nicene Creed. Deepen our understanding by other approaches, absolutely! Get rid of it? I don't see how that is possible without creating an entirely new faith (& am unsure what relationship it would have to historic Christianity).

Posted by: Prior Aelred on Sunday, 6 January 2008 at 1:42am GMT

Lemmings are not extinct because the story of lemming mass suicides is a myth.

What follows is from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemmings

While many people believe that lemmings commit mass suicide when they migrate, this is not the case. Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can and do swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat[5]. On occasion, and particularly in the case of the Norway lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming, sometimes to exhaustion and death. Lemmings are also often pushed into the sea as more and more lemmings arrive at the shore. [6]

The myth of lemming mass suicide is long-standing and has been popularized by a number of factors. In 1955, Carl Barks drew an Uncle Scrooge adventure comic with the title: The Lemming with the Locket. This comic, which was inspired by a 1954 National Geographic article, showed massive numbers of lemmings jumping over Norwegian cliffs.[7]. The suicide myth was further propagated by Walt Disney documentary White Wilderness in 1958 which includes footage of lemmings migrating and running head-long over a ledge. An investigation in 1983 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Brian Vallee, showed that the Disney film makers faked the entire sequence using imported lemmings (bought from Inuit children), a snow covered turntable on which a few dozen lemmings were forced to run, and literally throwing lemmings into the sea to show the alleged suicides.[8] This myth is also witnessed in a German film - The Little Polar Bear (lars, the polar bear)--in which a group of despondent lemmings are frequently jumping off various ledges.[9]

Due to their association with this odd behaviour, lemming suicide is a frequently-used metaphor in reference to people who go along unquestioningly with popular opinion, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences. This is the theme of the video game Lemmings, where the player attempts to save the mindlessly marching rodents from walking to their deaths.

Posted by: Malcolm+ on Monday, 7 January 2008 at 3:12am GMT

Thanks Malcolm

I had a hunch the lemmings thing was an urban myth, but the imagery was quite fun. The other really funny things is how others also try to prove that biblical prophets, matriarchs and patriarchs, and even Jesus, Moses and Mohammad are urban myths.

One my delights is when you find an unexpected convergence.

So this article went up last night http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-4.html

It is an analysis of how the written Torah is more devoted to how we should live on this earth rather than in describing the afterlife or God. Sure there's some stuff there, but more to rubber stamp God as "the dude" than to actually purport to complete describe God (that is done in other, more contemplative texts and traditions).

Here's the concluding paragraph "And if we recognize that G-d's will is what is best for us, He will do our will too. Our wants and His will no longer be separate. Our desire will be to serve G-d, to come closer to Him and to realize our own potential. We will want health, happiness and all the blessings but only in order to serve G-d better. And so, there will be a merging of wills. Both our will and G-d's will become one and the same."

Doesn't that remind you of the Lord's Prayer "May your Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."

Posted by: Cheryl Va. Clough on Monday, 7 January 2008 at 7:53pm GMT
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