Friday, February 28, 2014

No Brain, No Problem

Some fascinating material in this book on How Judaism Became a Religion.

Interestingly, it seems that all of the main strands of Judaism -- Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform -- emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and each can be seen as a reaction to modernity (somewhat similar to how Christian fundamentalism is a thoroughly modern ideology).

Reconstructionist Judaism is more of a 20th century North American phenomenon. I haven't yet gotten up to that chapter, but my limited understanding is that it is like a Jewish version of Unitarianism, i.e., they believe in no more than one God.

I found the discussion of the differences between Orthodoxy and Hasidism to be especially interesting. I trust that Gandalin will let us know if this is a simplistic caricature, but you could say that the Orthodox are analogous to scholastic philosophers poring over scripture and creatively engaging God's living law. Hasidism emerged as a kind of reaction to this, and is throughly mystical, experiential, ecstatic, and individualistic (i.e., not so much focused on the community).

The reason I find this interesting is that one finds this same complementarity in eastern and western forms of Christianity, i.e., Catholicism and Orthodoxy. And indeed, Hasidism emerged in eastern Europe whereas Orthodox Judaism reflects its highly intellectual and more "civilized" German culture.

Many German Jews apparently looked down on their eastern brethren as more than a little uncouth, uneducated, and superstitious; ironically -- considering what happened later -- many of them would have related more to their fellow non-Jewish Germans than to Polish or Russian Jews.

Anyway, the parallel to eastern and western forms of Christianity is intriguing. Eastern Christianity, unlike Catholicism, has never, to my knowledge, developed any systematic theology a la Thomas Aquinas. You might say they missed that boat entirely, and never made any attempt to reconcile revelation with modernity or science or rational philosophy.

Rather, like the Hasidim, they focus on the mystical and experiential. In fact, I would simply define mysticism as the experiential -- as opposed to intellectual or behavioral or (merely) emotional -- aspect of religion. It can never really be absent -- for example, the most intellectualized truth nevertheless must be experienced.

It's somewhat analogous to the distinction between light and heat. Intellectual light generates its own warmth, just as mystical heat radiates its own light. Or, just say mind and heart. Every human is equipped with each. At the start.

Imagine a giant global brain with western/left and eastern/right brain cerebral hemispheres.

Wait -- before you go any further -- can I buy some pot from you?

Anyway, come for the light, stay for the warmth. Or vice versa. A full service religion will feature both.

Back to The Tao of Christ. Speaking of experience, the author cautions us that mere knowledge (k) of revelation is useless; for it "cannot be separated from life," but rather, calls "for a radical transformation of our whole being."

In order to cover all the bases, we need to superimpose a cross over the brain. Thus, in addition to the left and right hemispheres, there is literally a higher and lower brain(s) -- there is the neocortex, under and behind which are the mammalian and reptilian brains, so to speak. And at the top of the spine there is the primitive brainstem of the simple Democrat. It assures respiration, a beating heart, and the ability to apply for food stamps, but little else.

Now, where is the source of our problems? Yes, life is problems. If you are dead, you have no problems. But where in the brain are our problems coming from? Well, I suppose it depends.

They say -- they being developmental neurologists steeped in attachment theory -- that they are stored away in the preverbal right cerebral hemisphere, which is why they are so difficult to detect and eradicate. They are beneath the reach of language, so to... not speak.

But there is a more general, universal, unavoidable problem associated with the human condition, and it is this upper and lower storey business. Freud supposedly thought he had discovered something new with his distinction between the primitive id and the civilized ego, but really, how could one fail to notice?

I remember, for example, when I was a bachelor living in Hermosa Beach. I would torture myself by riding my bike on the path along the beach. Suffice it to say, I did not have to think about scantily clad bodies in the sand. Rather, the thoughts bombarded me, entirely outside my will.

Phone rings. Unexpectedly called into work. On this perfect day for staying indoors, the first rainy day in over a year. Oh well. Life is problems.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Immanuel Transmission vs. Automatic Salvation

In yesterday's post I neglected to include a juicy comment by Moshe Idel, a renowned schola' of the kabbala' (cited in Boyarin), about the two "main vectors" of Jewish mysticism, what he calls the apotheotic and the theophanic streams.

Idel writes that the apotheotic "represents the impulses of a few elite individuals to transcend the human mortal situation through a process of theosis, by ascending on high, to be transformed into a more lasting entity..." This is precisely what I have in mind with the pneumaticon of the circle containing the upward arrow, minus the elite part, which sounds too (upper case) Gnostic (unless we're talking about genuine saints).

"In contrast to this upward aspiration is the theophanic vector, which stands for the revelation of the divine in a direct manner or via mediating hierarchies." This would obviously represent the circle with the downward -- or downWord -- arrow.

I then suggested that perhaps Jesus embodies both arrows. Yes, he is Word-made-flesh, i.e., the Personal Absolute, the descending arrow. However, if he is also "fully man," then we might also regard him as the quintessence of man's ascending energies. Or in other words, he is lost and searching for God, just like the rest of us. In fact, this is hinted at in Matthew 1:23, where it says they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, 'God with us.'

In other words, not just God in or above us, but with us. Which can be quite consoling. Yes, he may be the harbor, but he's in the same boat with the rest of us (perhaps most dramatically in the garden at Gethsemane).

This suggests that we need a third pneumaticon that might look something like this:

It seems to me that certain theologies exclude one movement at the expense of the other. For example, certain strands of Protestantism insist that there can be no ascent from our side -- that we are so corrupted by sin that we cannot help ourselves. Rather, God's descent is both the necessary and sufficient cause of our salvation, and there's not a thing we can do or not do about it.

Granted, the universal church has always been mindful of the heresy of Pelagianism, which pretends that man can save himself without divine aid -- that he can ascend to the toppermost of the poppermost without God meeting him more than halfway.

Now, all heresies contain an element of truth, only overemphasized or out of proportion to the totality of revelation. Thus, in point of fact, Pelagianism is no more or less heretical than its polar opposite, predestination.

At the end of yesterday's post, I alluded to Schuon's comment to the effect that Jesus is simultaneously God's icon of man and our icon of God. If that is the case, then this icon must always include both arrows, the ascending and descending, since they are both (quintessentially) present in Jesus.

In the West, we know all about the descending arrow. But in Eastern Orthodoxy, I find that they give equal emphasis to the ascending arrow, to the apotheotic stream. You might say that they consider Jesus from the perspective of savior, but also from the angle of -- gulp -- guru. So to speak. They would no doubt prefer the term starets, a person who

"functions as a venerated adviser and teacher. Elders or spiritual fathers are charismatic spiritual leaders whose wisdom stems from God as obtained from ascetic experience." [Why, for example, do we read of Jesus' asectic experience during those forty days in the desert?]

"It is believed that through ascetic struggle, prayer and Hesychasm (seclusion or withdrawal), the Holy Spirit bestows special gifts onto the elder including the ability to heal, prophesy, and most importantly, give effective spiritual guidance and direction. Elders are looked upon as being an inspiration to believers and an example of saintly virtue, steadfast faith, and spiritual peace."

(This would be consistent with Jesus' question and comment -- I'm paraphrasing -- "why do you call me good? There is no one good but God.")

Note that in the Gospels, this is how the disciples most frequently approach Jesus. In other words, they don't usually approach him as God, but as rabbi, teacher. Indeed, he shared all sorts of practical spiritual and ethical advice, things that would be utterly useless to us if predestination were the case. I mean, why pray, why evangelize, why obey the Commandments, if it makes no difference to our salvation?

Boyarin suggests that in Mark -- the earliest Gospel -- we can see most clearly the two trends, as if they hadn't quite yet been harmonized: "It is almost as if two stories have been brought together into one plot: one story of a God who became man, came down to earth, and returned home, and a second story of a man who became God and then ascended on high."

And why not? If Jesus represents a new category of being (both arrows), then naturally it will take awhile for human beings to work it all out.: "ahh, right: God and man. Man and God." It actually took centuries to nail down the right balance.

So, Jesus saves. But Jesus also teaches us how to be saved. Like how? One memorable book that touches on this is Christ the Eternal Tao. Since I don't remember those memorable details, let's dig it out and find out what it says. However, I can tell you ahead of time that it contains some of the same information presented in chapter four of my book. No, I didn't plagiarize anything, aside from plundering it for all it is worth.

Here it is, chapter three, Watchfulness. Hieromonk Damascene reminds us that we always "carry within ourselves the inclination and habit to return to our former condition," and that "if we do not preserve, guard and cultivate the seed of Grace given to us, we will be deprived of its vivifying power."

Or in other words -- or symbols -- no (↑), no (↓). But it should go without saying that no (↓), no (↑), either. Two sides of the same movement. Thus, "In order to preserve the Grace and not return to our former delusions, we must continuously, day by day, minute by minute, unite ourselves with the Way in metanoia."

I'm way behind in my work. To be continued...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fleshlights & I-AMmissaries

Boyarin writes that in the first few centuries AD, "Jews and Christians were much more mixed up with each other," but over time congealed into mutually exclusive systems. More generally, nowadays we think of religions as more or less "fixed sets of convictions with well-defined boundaries," even if they didn't start out that way.

I am of two -- or maybe three -- minds about this. One part of me wants to agree with Schuon that each revelation is uniquely designed for a specific people and a certain purpose, so that to blend them (or to pretend to switch cultures) is a bad idea. It is not for us to do this, since it introduces a human element into the God-given.

Another part of me wants to regard religion-as-such as one vast body of knowledge, data, and experience. Why limit oneself to just one pool? We like Chinese and Italian food. Why not Asian and Roman religion?

In the past, people had no choice in the matter, since they were simply born into the local cult and had no knowledge of other religious cuisines. But each religion tends to emphasize certain elements of Religion, so that one religion can helpfully amplify or spice up parts that another neglects or underemphasizes.

Still another part of me wants to look at religion in a very abstract way, shorn of local coloring and sentimental attachments. This is almost a scientific approach, in that it considers the data in terms of the deeper principles that makes it possible.

In other words, just as the scientist searches for the underlying law or principle that unifies the observed data, I want to understand how, say, it is even possible for a man to know God. What a priori principles are necessary for this to be a possibility?

One such principle -- or assumption or axiom -- is that man is in the image of the Creator. If we weren't, then no real knowledge of God would be possible. Rather, we could only know ourselves. As I mentioned in a comment yesterday, you can give a Bible to a cow, but the cow won't know what to do with it, because a cow is not in the image of God.

Human beings, although obviously limited by our form, can nevertheless transcend it and thus know truth. We are the form that escapes our form -- or the genome that transcends our supposedly "selfish" genes. Thus, if Richard Dawkins' thesis is true, it is self-negating, since the generous truth transcends his selfish DNA.

In the book, I attempted to outline some of these abstract religious principles -- or principles that make religiosity possible. For example, I am quite convinced of the existence of (↓) and (). Without them, nothing about religious experience makes any sense.

Boyarin points out that when Jesus used the curious term "Son of Man," no one had to ask what it meant. Rather, it seems that his listeners must have been familiar with it. This is all the more likely when we read of how his audience didn't hesitate to express bewilderment when they didn't understand him, for example, in John 6:60, when many of the disciples grumble that "this is a hard saying; who can understand it?"

Well, it might be easier to understand if we could understand the principle that makes it possible. Otherwise, we are being asked to do something that is impossible and makes no sense to us. I don't think the Creator wants that.

In the book there are a couple of other symbols that look like these:

I haven't written much about them, but the upward arrow refers to a person who has experienced mystical union with God, whereas the downward arrow refers to an -- or the -- Incarnation, i.e., God in human form. For Christians this is a unique occurrence, whereas in Hinduism, for example, it is an expression of the avatar principle. But even if we think of it as a unique occurrence, nevertheless, in order for it to occur, it must be possible for it to occur, so we are back to the principle that makes it possible.

Now interestingly, Boyarin points out there were some Jews who had been expecting their Redeemer "to be a human exalted to the state of divinity" -- in other words, the upward arrow. However, "others were expecting a divinity to come down to earth and take on human form" -- the downward arrow.

And indeed, early IsraeliteChristian hybrids struggled with just this issue: is Jesus from the downside up or the upside down? "[S]ome believers in Jesus believed the Christ had been born as an ordinary human and then exalted to divine status, while others believed him to have been a divinity who came down to earth."

To this day there are Christians who hold to the former, e.g., adoptionism, whereby Jesus is adopted by God because of his sinlessness and devotion.

I wonder if the whole point is that he is both? I think Schuon said something to the effect that Jesus is simultaneously God's icon of man and our icon of God.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

PS I'm Ambivalent About You

Well, I don't know if there's much more to say about The Jewish Gospels. It seems to be one of those one-idea-and-keep-hammering-it books, as if he didn't nail it the first time -- the idea being that Christianity is not a break, but a continuation, of Judaism.

This could be controversial for some or maybe even most Jews, whereas it cannot by definition be controversial for Christians. Then again, Christians will no doubt balk at the notion that Christianity brought no new ideas into the world.

Of course, we must bear in mind that that Judaism is a river with many upstream tributaries and downstream branches, streams, and eddies. In the case of Christianity, one of the branches broke off and became its own river.

Evidently, there is no "normative" Judaism. The moment someone claims to represent it, someone else will contradict him. Two rabbis, three opinions, etc.

I recently read a biography of Maimonides, who some consider to be the Greatest Genius of Judaism. Of course, others will argue with that characterization. In any event, he assembled a list of thirteen principles of the faith; number one is the existence of Number One, the Creator.

I suppose we can look at the thirteen principles as a kind of flow chart -- the flow of the above referenced river; a river of light, as it were. So we're all together at the headwaters, the source, the cosmic spring.

Number two: his unity. Oops! Here the river seems to branch in two, because Maimonides would maintain that a trinitarian God contradicts his unity.

However, I think we have to give the early Christians -- being that they were Jews -- credit for appreciating the dilemma. Of all people, they would be aware of the difficulty of squaring this circle, which took centuries to officially resolve, or to congeal into a principle, i.e., a trimorphic God with distinctions but no separation. (This primordial Three must be considered a quality, not quantity.)

But according to Boyarin, not only is such an idea kosher, but similar ideas were being discussed in Jesus' day, and indeed, centuries before. He introduces some fascinating research showing how mono-theism emerged from poly-theism, but not always in a smooth, harmonious, and seamless way. That is to say, one can at times detect unassimilated godlings hovering around the one God. (Not to mention the ongoing temptation to revert to out-and-out paganism.)

To back up a bit, the reason I find this fascinating is that it mirrors the development of the mind, which moves from fragmentation to synthesis. One can look at this quite abstractly as the basic metabolism of cognition. For reasons we won't get into, Bion symbolized the fragmentation PS, the synthesis D. Thus, one of the ground floor operations of the mind is PS↔D. Note the bi-directionality of the arrow, as things are always falling apart and reconstituting.

Aren't they? Hope it's not just me.

You could say that a "nervous breakdown" is a descent into unremitting PS. These fragments of PS are persecutory and predatory, especially as they become more primitive. Even "curiosity" is a kind of "pain," i.e., the pain of not-knowing. However, we must tolerate the pain of PS in order to await the coherence of D. Which then becomes a new pain in the PS.

So, long story short, this is how I regard the historical discovery of the one God. It is literally a discovery, because prior to that, reality is too occluded by psychic fragmentation to apprehend him. Thus, polytheism is really the residue of psychic fragmentation, the inability to intuit the whole. One-ness cannot be revealed to scatterbrains.

Interestingly, looked at this way, the trinitarian God is a kind of eternally dynamic PS↔D. I don't mean to vulgarize the deity, or contaminate him with our own limited ideas.

However, think of the idea of kenosis, i.e., the self-emptying of God. With the Incarnation, God essentially tosses his unity into our world of fragmentation and multiplicity, culminating with the Cross. Looked at this way, the Resurrection is the recovery, the re-synthesis and re-integration. Thus, in a way, Jesus' passion is the last Word in PS→D. Just when the apostles think the world is hopelessly disintegrated and flying off its hinges, it reintegrates at a higher level than they could have possibly imagined. "Transfiguration," you might say, is a very high-level D.

However, Judaism has its own version of primordial PS↔D; in fact, several versions. For example, Steinsaltz, in his Coon Classic, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, writes that "Creation itself, and the creation of man," is "a descent for the sake of ascent." Even the Sabbath can be seen as a day devoted to D after six days of frazzled PS. It is a return to the One, a reset, a reJewvenation. (Note also that the Sabbath is the telos, or purpose, of creation; or, at the very least, the opportunity to re-orient oneself to that transcendent unity.)

There is also the "shattered vessels" principle. (I just googled it and this is the first thing that comes up, so there are no doubt better explanations.) If I am not mistaken, the basic idea is that the world is shattered, scattered, battered and tattered, and that it is our task and privilege to help put it back together. Which is what we attempt here at *One* Cosmos. Yeah, someone's gotta do it.

Back to Maimonides' list: number three, denial of God's corporality. Here is another one Boyarin would dispute, or at least there were some ancient streams that thought otherwise. The question is, were those just pagan streams holding on to atavistic dreams of the godman? Or is it a legitimate principle?

Boyarin claims that Jesus is new, but the idea is very old. The only thing new is that this particular individual is the Son of Man, but Jesus did not invent the concept. Rather, again, it is in Daniel, and it is also present in the more recently discovered book of Enoch, which is roughly contemporary with the earliest Gospels. No, it is not scripture, but it does prove that the expectation of the Son of Man -- the divine in human form -- was in circulation.

Gotta go. Argue away!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Jews for Jesus for Jews

The Jewish Gospels puts forth the outrageous idea that Jesus and all of his followers were -- wait for it -- Jews!

Actually, it's not as simple as that, because the words "Christian" and "Jew" have very different meanings today than they did in antiquity.

In fact, Christians were Jews, albeit a specific kind. However, there have always been different kinds of Judaism; or, to put it conversely, there has never been one way to be Jewish.

Indeed, there are even atheist Jews, and not just secular ones -- just google atheist rabbi. I'm not sure how they manage that, but in practical terms, the majority of (ethnic) Jews can't be (religious) Jews, or they wouldn't support the Democratic Party. The majority of seriously religious Jews naturally tend to be conservative, and are aware of the fact that liberalism has become a substitute religion for their irreligious fellows. Which only violates the first two Commandments. Not to mention the the sixth through tenth.

In addition to liberalism, the other thing that unites secular Jews is their anti-Christian attitude. Given their traumatic history (albeit in Europe, not here), it frankly isn't difficult to understand this, for the same reason it isn't hard to understand why blacks would despise the party of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, i.e., the Democrats. Oh, wait...

Actually, the cases aren't that dissimilar, for just as a minority of blacks understand that conservatives are their greatest friends, a minority of Jews understand that Christians are their most staunch and devoted allies. Conversely, virtually all of the wholesale anti-Semitism in the world comes from the international left (and from Islam, of course).

Thus, although Boyarin seems to think that his findings will be equally unsettling to Christian and Jew, relatively few Christians will be disturbed to learn they are even more Jewish than they had realized, whereas the only thing many secular Jews know about their religion is that it is not Christianity.

But the opposition between the two only occurred over time. Instead of being two types of Judaism -- i.e., bound by their commonality -- they eventually began to define themselves by their differences. It's analogous to a bunch of chess pieces initially defining themselves as pawns, knights, rooks, et al, but then deciding to define themselves as black or white. The pieces haven't changed, only the self-identification.

Me? I love the idea that what Christians consider unique about the Christian revelation actually has deep roots in Jewish scripture, most controversially, trinity and incarnation. I guess Jews are supposed to get all farklemt or farmisht about these commonalities, but it's right there in their scripture.

Boyarin goes straight to Daniel -- coincidentally (?) the last book of the OT in the Orthodox Study Bible -- where we read of (what else to call it?) two Gods, the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. The latter is an odd designation, but it is precisely the one Jesus most often applies to himself.

Daniel 7:9 describes a second divine throne, and in 7:14 it speaks of how the Ancient of Days transfers to the Son of Man "dominion, honor, and the kingdom." "His authority is an everlasting authority" and "his kingdom shall not be destroyed."

So there's that interesting little item. I've also always been intrigued by Genesis, where God is quoted as saying "let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness"; and to those passages of Proverbs which speak of the eternal pre-existence of wisdom, e.g., 8:27-30, "When He prepared the heavens, I was there, When He drew a circle on the face of the deep.... I was beside him as a master craftsman."

For Boyarin, it is not possible to regard Jesus as some sort of aberration from the mainstream -- or at least one of the main streams -- of Judaism. For example, "many Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human." Thus, it is no longer possible "to think of some ethical religious teacher who was later promoted to divinity under the influence of alien Greek notions...."

During the first few centuries of "Christianity," there were many people who were unproblematically both "Jewish" and "Christian." However, they would have identified themselves as simply Jewish. That is, they continued to follow Jewish dietary law but also believed in Christ as son of God.

In point of fact, the definitive break didn't come until the fourth century, when Constantine called for the first ecumenical council in order to clarify just what Christianity is. Thus, oddly enough, you could say that the Council of Nicaea simultaneously created both Christians and Jews, for the Council emerged with "the establishment of a Christianity that was completely separated from Judaism."

But before this, "no one... had the authority to tell folks that they were not Jewish or Christian, and many had chosen to be both." Only afterwords were these Christian Jews or Jewish Christians "written right out of Christianity."

It reminds me a little bit of how I am the same liberal I've always been, except that the left has now written classical liberals out of their script(ure). If you're not a leftist, you're somehow illiberal.

Back to the Son of Man business. I've only just started the book, but again, Jesus most often refers to himself by this title, so what does it mean?

Interestingly, Boyarin suggests that we have things backwards -- that Son of Man is a divine title, whereas Son of God is a human one. To support this thesis, he points out that "Son of God" is all through the OT, referring to how earthly Kings such as David were ritually anointed with oil and became "sons of God."

But what could Son of Man refer to? I have always considered it to mean something like Mankind v2.0. In other words, if you believe that humans are descended from apes, you could in a sense say that human beings are Sons of Apes. Analogously, Jesus represents another evolutionary leap, making him the Son of Man.

Boyarin suggests something similar, as if Adam is indeed mankind v1.0 and Jesus is mankind The Sequel. But that's about as far as I've gotten in the book. I'm up to page 40, where Boyarin notes that the two divinities referenced above -- the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man -- "in the course of time, would end up being the first two persons of the Trinity."

So it seems that Christian theology may not be quite as meshuge as many Jews believe. And that those anti-Semitic liberal Christian denominations need to stop boycotting themselves, i.e., Israel.