theological musings

April 26, 2010

i suppose before i start, i should qualify the following remarks with a bit of autobiographical framing:

i am religious, yes.  jewish to be exact.  however, my type of jewish is an odd duck to hunt and then mount.  it’s rigorous, but it’s leftist.  it prefers the ecstatic fervor of the hasidim, but (and!) it is radically egalitarian.  it is clearly un-orthodox.  you might even call it heterodox.

so, this brings me to my musings.

the one thing that bugs me the most about the theological debate as it stands is the pathological obsession with biblical inerrancy.  first of all, the idea of the bible as lynchpin of faith is a distinctly protestant notion.   it is clear to anyone with the barest understandings of interpretive history that there is not really any such thing as “biblical literalism.”

even the debate surrounding this principle has ceded ground from the outset to this ridiculous position.  to be forced to represent yourself as “not believing in a literal interpretation of the bible” already positions you as a weak-tea version of the true religionist who has enough strength in his convictions to override modern lily-livered qualms and put the whole world in G?d’s hands.

whatever.

the jewish (and catholic and muslim and even protestant) traditions have a long and rich history of biblical interpretation.  but not only that.  there are whole scores of religious literatures which make reference to the bible and are grounded in it, but serve their own function as well.  in fact, the study of the bible in the world of the yeshiva (advanced jewish study academy) has relegated the bible to a distant fourth behind the talmud, jewish law, and ethical texts.  the bible is present, of course, but it functions more as the ground whence texts bloom than the dominant focus.

now, all that being said, i want to acknowledge the feeling of needing perfection.  the books of psalms tells us, “the Torah of the Lord is perfect.” (Ps 19:7).   i want to propose a radically difference understanding of perfection.  from plato on down, we have felt compelled to understand perfection as implying stasis, wholeness.  i want to suggest a more fluid understanding of perfection.  it is an organic perfection, one emerging from the amazing adaptations happening around us all the time.  michael jordan was perfect in that game, because he was able to provide what was needed at the time.  the clash was perfect because they were able to create the most wonderful friction.

the Torah is perfect because it is able to provide us with what we need in every time.  the bible is perfect because it will never stop being an incredible textual resource and framework.

we must loose ourselves of this silly notion of “biblical faith.”  all faith is “biblical” in some way.  we are always conditioned by the externalities that help form us into the people we become.  our bible hums around us at all times.

perfect.

Christopher Hitchens is a complex and oftentimes frustrating essayist. Possessing razor-sharp wit and precious little pity, Hitchens is most enjoyable when he is preoccupied with the shortcomings of one’s enemies, as in this delightful review. Yet, it can be cathartic to suffer his barbs when they hit closer to home. As an avowed fan of Winston Churchill, I found it challenging to read through Hitchens’ “The Medals of His Defeat,” an extremely critical analysis of Churchill’s legacy. However, in examining Churchill more critically, I found myself able to see more clearly why Churchill mattered (and still does). Unfortunately, while Churchill had the British public to keep his aggression and bombast in check after the war, no similar mechanism restrains Hitchens when he extends his rancor beyond his erudition.

Hitchens’ latest piece at Slate, “Bah, Hanukkah,” could be called a triumph of style over substance, but that might constitute a slight against the insubstantial. In this meandering essay, Hitchens attacks Hanukkah as a celebration of the “imposition of theocratic darkness” over the enlightened values of Hellenism, which “presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes.” While it might be fun to entertain the idea that the bumpkin Maccabees fought a war of independence against the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic, this particularly Manichean view of history belies the complexities of the period.

The animus behind the Maccabean revolt can be seen through many complementary lenses, and just whom the revolt was against is similarly complex. The Maccabees represented a kind of religious traditionalism, in so far as they rejected the worship of Zeus as enforced by the Seleucid king Antiochus “Epiphanes” (“the shining one,” a decidedly religious sobriquet) and the Jews who supported him. However, at the same time that they fought these ostensible Hellenizers, the Maccabees themselves shared many of their cultural practices. So too, the Maccabees’ revolt can be seen as a class revolt; in an appropriately Trotskyist light, evidence suggests that the Maccabees’ forces came largely from the ranks of the disenfranchised, who saw the elite’s acquiescence to paganism as an unpardonable insult. The conflict can also be seen as an intra-religious one, between the priestly caste (and their sacrificial cult) and rank-and-file Jews, or as a fight between pre-Rabbinic and pro-sacrificial cults. (For a far more thorough and well-written discussion about the dynamics of Hellenism and Judaism, see Seth Schwartz’s excellent Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E.)

Hitchens also manages to goof up the traditional interpretation of Hanukkah. Rabbinic Judaism, the tradition that would later become the major Jewish movements of modern times, did not celebrate Hanukkah as a military triumph, instead choosing to celebrate the restoration of the Temple (particularly the clearing out of pagan paraphernalia) and the miracle of the Temple’s remaining supply of oil lasting for eight days. Furthermore the Rabbis had little love for the heirs of the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans, both for their corrupt governance of Judea, and later for inspiring the traditionalist zealots of the Great Jewish Revolt Against Rome, who made life difficult for Rabbinic Jew and Roman alike.

Late in the piece, Hitchens makes some cursory remarks about the place of holiday symbols in public places. Unfortunately, whatever merit such a discussion might have, it is undercut by the most fatuous argument this holiday season, in which Hitchens blames the Maccabees, and by extension Hanukkah, for Christianity, anti-Semitism (for if there were no Christianity, Jews could not be called Christ-killers), Islam, and for retarding the development of humanity. Apart from the stark fact that Jews such as Philo continued to study Hellenistic philosophy (which Hitchens lionizes) throughout the times of the Hasmoneans, the works of the philosophers and cultural figures that Hitchens cites were Greeks of a prior era, not denizens of the Seleucid empire.

The tenuousness of the concatenation is far more ridiculous. If Judea and Judaism were totally absorbed into the Seleucid empire, Christianity and Islam might not have come about. However, who’s to say what might have replaced it? Certainly not a grand rationalism, were the Zeus-addled lieutenants of Antiochus to have prevailed. Perhaps worship of Antiochus would have flourished, or perhaps in the later years of Rome, the worship of Sol Invictus could have continued, unchecked by Christianity. Maybe, to warp a Sam Harris trope, today people might not be atheists in respect to Poseidon.

By the same logic, one might as well come out against celebration of the fourth of July. After all, the American colonists were mostly lower class, salt-of-the-earth types, who bristled at the idea that they owed taxes and devotion to a semi-divine king, rejecting the same culture that had already brought the world, the triumph of rational thought in the works of Hobbes and Locke, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. And had those Puritan-loving colonists not revolted, the continent would be free of slavery (as England abolished it well before the United States), there would be no atomic bomb (as the first was an American effort), and not even an Osama bin Laden (as he was at one time supported by the United States).

To engage in another Hitchens-style “what-if” scenario, what would Hitchens’ piece have looked like if instead of being a Wikipedia-dependent anti-Hanukkah screed, it had been a specific rebuke to those Jews who do interpret of Hanukkah featuring “an Almighty with a special fondness for fundamentalists”? Or even just a screed about the continuing presence of religious symbols in public places? Atheists and religious moderates might both benefit, but it would interfere with Hitchens’ efforts to get a crucifix of his own.

Retrogeekery and The News

November 25, 2007

Though it has been a slow week here at Yesterday’s Salad, because we are busy eating leftover turkey (and salads! and eyes!), the rest of the world (apparently) has kept moving.

And despite the best efforts of your “moral majority” and your “president,” it’s moving quickly. In a rare case of “intellectuals-actually-showing-smarts,” a team of scientists have given stem cell critics a sweet lil’ reach-around. Instead of waiting for this “moral issue” to work itself out in the political sphere, they’ve kept working (with science!), and have learned how to bypass the need for embryonic stem cells in…embryonic stem cell research. Science bites religion’s eyes.

While the benefits of stem cell research are not exactly as far-reaching as the theoretical benefits of nanomachines (as far as I can tell) they are pretty close. And I think the topics themselves are either closely related or overlapable. If you are a scientist, or a superior geek, tell me if I am wrong.

The point is that it’s cool to see things that you read about in science fiction books as a kid…nearing scientific fact. Hence the title of this post.

Book 1: The First Immortal. This is a science fiction novel that predominantly deals with the far-reaching implications of nanotechnology on the world and humanity at large. Cryonics, or cryogenics, also play a big role in this novel. This is kind of a weird book, and kind of a scary book, and I kind of liked it. It follows the story of a man who chooses cryogenic suspension after death (a la Ted Williams’s head) and who is later revived and repaired by nanomachines, and who later becomes the first immortal human being when scientists learn how to literally connect our minds to computers through what is best described, in current geek-terms, as incremental direct downloads. I am decently sure that after reading this book, many people decided to freeze themselves, so that they can be revived and repaired by nanomachines, and eventually become immortal. I am not one of these people (death will be a nice rest) but if that sounds like your kind of cheeseburger, you can download the entire book, for free, here. I only bring all of this up because when I think of stem cell research curing disease, I think of nanomachines curing disease, and when I think of the implications (good, and yes, bad) of cured diseases, I think of this book.

Book 2: The Truth Machine. This is the first novel of James L. Halperin, the same author who wrote The Last Immortal. It also warrants a mention, because of this article in the New York Times, which is actually about people who were convicted of crimes they did not commit but who were exonerated by DNA (and not by lie detecting equipment, which is what happens in the book). However, these are the people who are punished by an imperfect system, and whose lives are ruined not necessarily by this system (which is probably better than we think it is) but by the fact that without scores of dependable witnesses and ample concrete evidence, it’s often very difficult to know with certainty who actually committed a crime. Anyway, this article got me thinking about Halperin’s first science fiction novel, The Truth Machine, which is essentially a utopian novel about a future where the world is saved by a genius who invents a machine that can tell with one hundred percent certainty whether or not a person is lying. Apparently, this concept may be based on actual theoretical science as well. If something like this sounds like your kind of chocolate milkshake, you can download the novel for free, here.

In case you are wondering why both of those free download links come from a coin collector auction gallery web site, it’s because Halperin is a famous (infamous!) coin collector and dealer. Though Chief Daily Salad would probably call him a numismatist.

Thank you for reading Retrogeekery and The News. I am the eye biter, and I bite, freeze, repair, and re-bite your eyes.

With the prospect of nuclear war with North Korea temporarily averted, Major League Baseball, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and the Major League Baseball Players Association have decided not to cancel the World Series as they did to celebrate the release of Hoop Dreams in 1994. And with the arrival of a World Series (as with a Superbowl) comes the need to FUTURECAST the fore, and to predict qui va [Eric] gagner cette evenement mondiale.

So without further delay, here are but four of the reasons why your Colorado Rockies are doomed to lose to the provincial proletariat’s team, the Boston Red Sox.

1) Getting Around Town. As we learned in our discussion of the Superbowl (two links to that post in the same article; a new record!), having a good transit agency is integral to a team’s postseason success. And while the T is nothing to write home about (especially not in the Massachusetts Bay, where mail is delivered by T and thus takes over a fortnight to arrive at its destination), Denver’s light rail is quite paltry. Besides, much of the T’s problems are a result of the overcrowding caused by being the hub of the universe. FasTracks may someday reify the Denver transit scene, but for now Boston’s system is far more extensive–and not 1.5 Billion over budget. Advantage Boston.

2) Religious Identity: Although the Colorado Rockies’ rise to power would seem to be contemporaneous with their adoption of Jesus as the team’s personal lord and saviour, this success is abnormal. In this new American Secular Age the Rockies, like much of evangelical America, are hopelessly behind the time, strictly qui est out. Have not the Rockies’ brain trust heard of Mr. Sam Harris and his “The End of Faith“? If they have, the Rockies defense is probably along the lines of Mr. Stephen Colbert on his eponymous program:

“Harris begins his standard rap about how “we’re all atheists with regard to Poseidon.” Colbert sternly overrides him, insisting that not all gods are created equal and ‘My god can kick your god’s ass.'” [fuller recap of the interview here]

But what makes the Rockies so sure that their God is superior [full disclosure: this post does not reflect the beliefs of all Saladeers. But for the record, Dash supports Sabbateanism, while the Ciceronian worships at the altar of his own oratory], what makes them sure that the Greek Gods do not walk among us today? After all, the Greek God of Walks plays for the Red Sox and his ability to be both Greek God and Jewish is proof of the ironic nature of identity athetically described by Derrida in his “Interpretations at War: Kant, the Jew, the German.” And until the Rockies embrace the multiplicity of identities, they are doomed to failure (or, at least doomed to being considered structuralist). Read the rest of this entry »