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The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

If you were to die today, where would you go?
Billboard Sign in Kansas

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

The Arrogance of Belief: Thinking in Jewish 44

Driving through Missouri and Kansas for the past two days, I couldn’t help but notice the many billboards that read “If you were to die today, where would you go.” I know what the people spending money would like as an answer, thereby allowing their organizations to profit from one’s repentance; my answer, however, is simply this…I’ll go into the ground. I have no illusions about that for which there are no answers. I do not believe there is knowledge beyond the grave. I do not believe that the body and the soul exist as separate entities, rather, the soul, if there is such a thing, is fully dependent upon the physical body for its very existence. It is not a separate entity housed in the body at the pleasure of some deity or another. That being said, should one present evidence to the contrary, and by evidence I do not mean textual references to Bronze or Iron Age documents that purport to be the undeniable word of God for that is not reliable nor valid evidence. No, I mean something that counts as evidence that is both replaceable and reliable through valid experimentation. In short, evidence that does not rely on belief first and results second. If I were presented with that sort of evidence, I would be the first to change my mind.

What strikes me about these billboard adverts is their arrogance. They purport to know an answer that is absolutely unknowable, relying on fear laden belief systems that infuse guilt as the guide to right or moral behavior. The question being asked relies on a belief that there is an afterlife, that in this afterlife one is either rewarded or punished, that one has some measure of control over which afterlife one will receive and that this decision is ultimately out of one’s hands and in the hands of some eternal bureaucrat who metes out rewards and punishments like an angry parent might. It is just this kind of thinking that causes some people, Christians, Jews and Muslims, to choose martyrdom on  the promise that because of their actions they will be granted the highest rewards available in heaven for committing unspeakable acts upon their fellow man. None are immune from behavior rooted in the ancient mythology of the Bronze or Iron Ages because the holy texts of these monotheistic religions make promises based on nothing more than the words scratched out on some ancient parchment.

The Buddhists have a saying that keeps the whole thing in perspective, “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him.” The force of this simple idea is that one who purports to know, who claims knowledge of the unknowable, is a false prophet and must, therefore, be ignored. One must not listen to the self-serving arrogance of one who claims knowledge of that which is ineffable. To do so is to engage in dangerous, menacing behavior designed to serve the self-interest of another rather than the interests of the greater good. The arrogance of those claiming knowledge of that which they have no knowledge other than their reliance on ancient texts born, perhaps, of political propaganda to serve the interests of the priests and ruling classes or, perhaps, the human need to understand that which is currently explainable  or, perhaps, both is palpable in the sense that it exploits those most easily exploited. In the words of P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

“If you were to die today, where will you go?” is in the same category as the arrogance of those who predict the dates for the end of the world and the evangelical campaigns like “I Found It” and “I Support Religious Freedom.” Ideas without evidence, relying only on faith for their foundational underpinnings. For me, I’ll simply pass.

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It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

It Is All About How One Looks at History: Thinking In Jewish XXII

What constitutes history? Even historians artfully argue about the meaning of history and historical data. In a brilliant analysis of Jewish and Christian thought in the century or so post-Constantine, Jacob Neusner argues from this rather idea: Jews and Christians, using the same set of facts and the same analytical approach reached dramatically different conclusions. The outcome depended on how each protagonist understood the ultimate teleological meaning contained within the facts themselves. Christian authors chose to explain the series of events from Biblical Genesis to their own present day as the perfection of the teleological promise of redemption and salvation; that the past predicts the future. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, understood the past from Biblical Genesis to the present day as another in a never-ending series of retributions, punishments meted out by God for the failure to deliver what God seemingly wanted. On this view the events of the past held no particular sway over the teleological promise of salvation to come when the Messhah finally arrives, rather, the events of the past are merely mini-cycles of relative redemption and relative punishment getting people ready for the ultimate salvation offered by the Messiah who is yet to come.

Christian scholars saw the conversion of Constantine and the political triumph of Christianity as absolute proof that God delivered on God’s promise. They understood the triumph as everlasting and unchanging. God finally revealed his Messiah to the people and now all prophesies have come to fruition. Jewish Sages, on the other hand, saw the world quite differently. They saw the world in terms of epochs that were anything but permanent. Whatever the political conditions extant in the world today are certainly not the conditions that will be present in the future. Each epoch is thought to be a permanent, powerful solution to the political world but, in the final analysis, falls and is replaced by another overarching politic. With this in mind, Jewish Sages saw the political conversion of the Roman Empire as nothing more that the beginning of a new epoch, one with lessons to offer for the true coming of God’s Messiah. Both Christian and Jewish scholars understood the world in the same teleological and eschatological terms; history presents itself as a linear progression to the end of days in which salvation is the reward for all of human kind. Christian eschatology argues that this very opportunity opened itself to fruition with the advent of Jesus with true salvation coming somewhere down the road waiting for the Messiah to return to finish his work. Jews, on their part, rejected that very idea in favor of one that merely predicts that sometime in the future, but not now, salvation is guaranteed by the advent of the Messiah.

Making use of the same proof texts from the Pentateuch and other biblical writings and writing under quite similar teleological structures, Christian and Jewish scholars came to different conclusions regarding the meaning of the “triumph” of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Their conclusions were, of course, structured to fit the overarching teleology that understood the historical as proceeding in a straight line from creation to the end of days. How they understood that line, however, influenced how they chose to examine the data they both had to work with. Both, according to Neusner, chose to see Genesis as prima facia evidence, factual documentation of God’s creation, relying heavily on that story as well as other Biblical stories to ‘prove’ their case. Christian scholars rigorously examined these stories as a linear progression from which flowed the entire history of mankind to the end of days culminating with the advent of the Messiah. No less rigorously, Jewish Sages, using precisely the same historical database found a very different, cyclical reading of the text. What happened in one epoch is bound to happen in another and the cycle will continue until such time as the Messiah appears.

So which side is right? Well, perhaps neither. Both arguments are based upon the single notion that history unfolds as a meaningful teleological story, a line that may be connected from the beginning of creation to the end of days. On the Christian side, that line appears to be linear, expressing the very idea that at each step along the way a progressive line is drawn to bring humanity closer to the salvation offered by the Messiah. On the Jewish side, that line appears to be cyclical, turning over and over, like a wagon wheel in the sand, presenting a slightly different political solution along the way to prepare humanity for promised salvation. But, what if history, the flow of independent events, most meaningless, are not connected to a teleological purpose? What if those events are simply random anomalies that, while perhaps occurring in bunches to look meaningful, are simply random groupings of insignificant long-term meaning? On this view, the world and its history appears to be more or less Jewish minus the teleology of the Jews. Governments rise and fall, what seems important at the moment is nothing more than the elevation of random ideas and events into immediately weighty issues of the day soon to be forgotten for the next weighty idea. The difference between the Jewish Sages cyclical view and this rather austere existential view is that for the Sages a teleological purpose is attached to the cyclical randomness of the unfolding of events while I suggest there is no teleological purpose at all to the randomness that materializes as meaningful history.

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Of All the Rotten Luck...

Of All the Rotten Luck…

Yes, that’s right, of all the rotten luck. Just a few days after my wife recovered from her very strange virus, the one having an effect on her knees, back and causing a significant and constant headache, I come down with some strange virus that has mimicked a kidney stone, caused incredible lower back pain, upper back pain, neck and shoulder pain along with some violent gastro-intestinal pain that, for the sake of decency, I won’t mention here. While those painful episodes are all giving up the ghost, the ones that still remain are related to the lower back and the GI system. Yuck, doesn’t this stuff ever go away.

Of course, there is a good side to all of this agony. I have had a great deal of time to devote to reading new texts, something I simply love to do because with everything I read I am better informed, have more at my fingertips to make responsible decisions about the very things that make a difference to me in my life. Sometimes, a book presents an argument that is, on its face, difficult to accept as being factual or well researched, sometimes arguments are forced and difficult to follow (always a danger sign of a dogmatic mind) and other times an argument seems so well situated in data that if the data being relied upon is true (often not the case) the argument is actually persuasive.

I am currently reading a monograph by Jacob Neusner, the famous scholar of Jewish Antiquity and ancient texts, as he approaches the historicity of the Jewish and Christian schism in the third and fourth centuries CE (the 100 t0 150 years post Constantine). Neusner never fails to surprise as he demonstrates through “what he knows” or, in other words, what can be supported by extant evidence and not by theological intervention on an otherwise fluid context of historical conditions, the shifting winds that brought Christianity to the gates of triumphalism while relegating Judaism to the posture of a utopian dreamscape waiting for the coming of the Messiah, while Christians ardently awaited the return of the Messiah in order that he complete his mission. Neusner claims that both Christians and Jews understood the Messiah and his coming in the same terms, based on the same biblical and post biblical texts varying only in the application of the lessons learned from those texts. An interesting proposition from the man who elsewhere argues that the Jewish Hillel and the Christian Jesus were one in the same human being expropriated theologically to serve specific needs outside of the historicity of the man extant.

As time passes, I hope to expand on these ideas on a regular basis. I just hope I can keep it together long enough to make a coherent thought.

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