Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sometimes, Sayings Say More than The Sayer Wants Said

Try saying that five times, fast.

Or, consider the saying: "Sow your wild oats."

Users of UrbanDictionary (that august source) suggest the following meanings:

1. "sow one's wild oats, to have a youthful fling at reckless and indiscreet behavior, esp. to be promiscuous before marriage."

2. "to have sex with as many people, [enjoy] life, and have fun before settling down".

And these sentiments seem quite commonly held.

TheFreeDictionary represents about the same range of options, giving the following definitions:

3. "to do wild and foolish things in one's youth. (often assumed to have some sort of sexual meaning.)"

4. "if a young man sows his wild oats, he has a period of his life when he does a lot of exciting things and has a lot of sexual relationships"

Wikipedia notes that the phrase:

5. "...'sowing wild oats' became a way to describe unprofitable activities."

Wikipedia adds: "Given the reputation of oat grain to have invigorating properties and the obvious connection between plant seeds and human 'seed', it is not surprising that the meaning of the phrase shifted towards more or less explicitly referring to the destructive sexual liaisons of an unmarried young male, possibly resulting in unwanted children born out of wedlock."

Now the scientific name for the plant termed the "common wild oat" is Avena fatua. And "Avena" simply means "oats." "fatua" is a cognate of fatuus, which means "foolish, silly, simple[;]...stupid[;]...(of food) insipid, tasteless".

So we see that the idea of "foolishness" is clearly built into the concept of "wild oats," at least as far as the concerns the etymology of the Latin name.

But there's a bit more if we examine some of the characteristics of the wild oat plant itself:

"Avena fatua is spread as a contaminant of cereal seed, by people, by farm animals and through contaminated shared farm implements. ... Avena fatua is considered to be one of the world's worst agricultural weeds ... A  fatua invades and lowers the quality of a field crop, typically wheat or oat fields and competes for resources with the crops. It causes soil dryness and provides favourable conditions for diseases and pests ...".

To summarize: Wild oats are weeds that:

- contaminate fields,
- threaten the viability of nutritious cereals,
- cause soil dryness, and
- encourage diseases

Of course, the assumption in agriculture is that the contamination of a field with wild oats will occur accidentally. It introduces a genuine foolishness, however, if the wild oats are intentionally sown.

"Fool" has the sense, historically speaking, of a person whose head is full of air. A fool is "empty-headed," a "windbag," even "mad, insane".


If we consider human relationships, as opposed to agriculture, I think that we can imagine straightforward applications of our understanding of the wild oat plant to the former. For example, if we take nutritious or profitable plants to correspond to substantial, loving relationships, then the wild oat plant itself will plausibly represent shallow, unloving relationships. Additionally, if we consider fertile, adequately hydrated soil to represent those conditions that are most conducive to the growth of substantial, loving relationships, then we will see that the fact that wild oats promote dry soil, suggests that wild oats will promote conditions that are not conducive to the growth of substantial, loving relationships. Finally, the fact that wild oats encourage disease in an agricultural sense, straightforwardly suggests that persons who "sow wild oats" in a relational sense will similarly encourage sexual diseases. And this latter observation, I take it, has no shortage of independent evidence to support it.

So, given all of this, it does seem insane to intentionally sow one's own field with a weed that is likely to choke out positive relationships, reduce a person's ability to cultivate substantial, loving relationships, and encourage diseases. However, this seems precisely what occurs in the case of a person who "sows his or her wild oats." And thus, it seems to me, the person who explicitly proclaims his or her intention to "sow wild oats" (and perhaps even more the person who proudly summarizes past activities with this phrase) has likely said something far more than he or she likely intended to say. For, in effect, such a person has said that his field (or hers) is a contaminated field. And this is arguably truly spoken.

It serves as a warning too. Any other person who hopes for a nutritious and profitable relationship might be thought wise to plant elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zeitgeist-Style Polemics

Today's image seems created in the geist (spirit) of the movie Zeitgeist. (Note: The movie covers more ground than merely making allegations against the uniqueness of Christianity. I will not presently be mentioning anything other than the material that is relevant to Christianity specifically.)

I won't try to reinvent the wheel. Mark Foreman has a very satisfactory first-pass Christian reply. His article is printed as "Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steriods" in the volume entitled: Come Let us Reason, Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Eds. (B&H: Nashville, TN, 2012), pp. 169-185. I will herein summarize a few of (what I take to be) Foreman's most salient points.

As a sort of preliminary, however, I will note that this image has a difficulty that is common to (what I have elsewhere called) "internet polemics" in general - namely, there are little to no sources cited (in this case, no sources cited at all).

(Since it seems likely to me that the single source for this picture is the Zeitgeist movie itself, the image content is only as good as the Zeitgeist sources. And these are questionable, at best. For all of its voluminous citations, the movie relies heavily on a handful of texts, marginal scholars, and several dated works. I myself am open to the possibility that criticisms of, for example, James Frazer's Golden Bough can be at least partially rebutted and his work (to take just one instance) made available for use as a credible source. But this sort of task - of addressing criticisms of Frazer - must actually be carried out. And the necessary work simply has not been done.)

By my lights, Foreman's main points are as follows.

Firstly, responsible "comparative religious study" is carried out by noting contrasts as well as comparisons. Typically, however, in Zeitgeist-style presentations, contrasts between Jesus and the various pagan deities are seldom (if ever) acknowledged. Skipping an honest appraisal of differences tends to give the impression either that there simply are no noteworthy differences (which is simply false) or that the differences are less substantial than, or outweighed by, the similarities (which may be true or false but which can hardly be seriously decided by only looking at similarities).

For example, Attis is a Phrygian deity (also cropping up in Greek mythology) who died (in some versions of his story) through bleeding to death as the result of castration. It may be that, in some versions, Attis' castrated and bleeding body was affixed to some sort of tree - usually a pine. But in other versions, it appears that he merely dies proximate to a pine - perhaps with his blood "fertilizing" the tree (similar to Zeus' fertilization of ground that produced the pomegranate). In any case, the point is that in the myth of Attis there is a distinct focus on castration that is altogether absent in the biblical texts relating the story of Jesus. And this difference seems important enough to mention.

Secondly, in a serious comparative religious enterprise, the comparisons that are made should arise "organically." That is, roughly speaking, they should not be "artificial" or forced comparisons. However, in Zeitgeist-style presentations, at least two difficulties arise at this point. Number one, a comparison can fail to be clearly "organic" (in the relevant sense) if the point of comparison is only obvious once a myth with differing versions has had one version carefully selected in order to make the comparison obvious, when it would not have been obvious otherwise.

Take a case. Let's consider Attis again. There are numerous versions of the Attis myth, as has been stated. In some versions, Attis is said to have castrated himself and subsequently bleeds to death (this may correspond to various goddess cults where male priests ostensibly castrated themselves in acts of worship). In other versions, he is castrated by a rival king (which rivalry may correspond to the sacred king-tanist duality in killing of the divine king type rituals). Sometimes, Attis is said to have been castrated by a wild animal - chiefly, a boar. And, as has been mentioned, these castrations are linked to the pine tree in various ways - for example, Attis may be castrated and die under or near the tree, or he may be castrated and then die on or in the tree, or he may be placed on or in the tree and then castrated, etc. But which version shall we favor? It's not at all clear - at least to me - that a version of the Attis myth where, say, Attis castrates himself and perishes on the floor of a forest, is any sort of Jesus parallel - let alone an obvious parallel. In Zeitgeist-style presentations, the favored version of a myth is decided in advance by the agenda of the film. Since the point of a Zeitgeist-style presentation is to suggest mythological antecedents for Jesus, it is apparent that the favored version of the Attis myth (or any other myth) will be that version that seems the closest to the story of Jesus. Foreman puts it this way: "These writers [such as the Zeitgeist authors] seem to use the life of Jesus as a guide for how to connect the dots for the life of [a pagan god, e.g. Attis or Horus] and then proclaim that the story of Jesus is based on [that god] - when actually [in terms of the direction of comparison] it is the other way around!" (p. 182)

Number two, the comparisons can fail to be "organic" if the comparison is anachronistically or ectopically labeled with distinctly Christian terms. Foreman calls this "the terminological fallacy," by which he means that "events in the lives of mythical gods...are expressed using Christian terminology in order subtly [or not so subtly] to manipulate viewers into accepting that the same events in the life of Jesus also happened in the lives of mythical gods."

Foreman specifically mentions the following illustrations of this phenomenon. "We are told...that Horus, Krishna, Dionysus, and others were 'baptized,' 'born of a virgin,' 'crucified,' and 'resurrected'... . Examples of such locutions, however, involve assertions with no evidence, are ripped out of their Christian context, or are obtained from post-first century [and hence post-early-Christian] sources" (p. 177).

Just take the case of "baptism." Both the baptism of John the Baptist (which Jesus underwent) and the distinctly Christian baptisms (which function as an initiatory rite into Christianity), are theologically "thick" notions. That is, they arguably contain numerous, discrete concepts. Now it would indeed be quite remarkable if a comparison of Christian baptism (in either or both of the relevant senses) with, say, something in the life of Horus, had substantive points of contact with some weighted sum of the various concepts in the "thick" conception. But, such a "thick" conception is usually set aside in favor of a "thin" conception whereby "baptism" is evacuated of most (if not all) of its distinctly Christian constitutive concepts, and "baptism" is reduced to something very common, such as "being in water" (or something). But comparisons employing such "thin" concepts are arguably entirely unremarkable. If "baptism" merely means the very "thin" notion of "being in water," then, of course, numerous pagan gods will be "comparable" to Jesus in this sense, for it is very common for persons to be in water. As I said, "thicker" notions of baptism will get increasingly more interesting - the "thicker" they become. But we need to have a careful explanation of the full concept of "baptism" that is being compared in order to gauge the level of interest that the comparison has. But, Zeitgeist-style presentations typically include nothing remotely approaching "a careful explanation of the full concept of 'baptism' that is being compared". Usually, Zeitgeist-style presentations appear to have a very "thin" concept of "baptism" and use the word "baptism" without qualification arguably in order to obscure this thinness.

As a quick follow-up, the case of Mithraism yields an example of what Foreman termed evidence "obtained from post-first century [and hence post-early-Christian] sources" (Ibid.). For although Mithraism predates the second century, all of the extant evidence for Mithraic beliefs and practices dates from no earlier than the second century. The earliest descriptions of Mithraism that we possess date from an era that comes after the inception of Christianity. Hence, even apparent similarities between Mithraism and Christianity can be explained in one of (at least) three different ways: (1) coincidence, (2) Christianity consciously borrowing from Mithraism, or (3) Mithraism concsiously borrowing from Christianity. Although option #1 is arguably rightly disfavored and set aside, somehow the third option is seldom even mentioned, let alone seriously discussed. But, prima facie, it might seem like the best option. Here's one reason: Mithraism was a famously syncretistic mystery cult; whereas, Christianity was scrupulously exclusivistic (many Christians died, in fact, rather than incorporate foreign ideas into their belief system). Therefore, given a deliberate policy of syncretism, Mithraism is, in might be suspected (antecedently) highly likely to have modified (at least the presentation, and possibly the deeper significance of) many of its beliefs and practices as a result of historical contact with Christianity.

Thirdly, and lastly for present purposes, Foreman makes the point that much of what passes as an insight into legitimate comparative religion, is merely a glossy and lengthy instance of the logical fallacy known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc - that is, the fallacy that starts with a premise that says B happened after A and then automatically tries to conclude, from time sequence alone, that B happened BECAUSE OF A.

A sort of textbook example of this would be something like the following: "I had a cold. I took some over-the-counter cold relief formula and then my cold was gone the next morning. Therefore, my cold was gone the next morning BECAUSE I took the cold relief formula the previous night." But, the conclusion does not automatically follow from the stated premise alone, because it is entirely possible (to consider just one example) that the cold had nearly "run its course" and would have been "gone the next morning" even if I had not consumed the cold relief formula when I did.

In a similar way, the basic structure of a number of Zeitgeist style arguments seems merely to be this: Jesus came after such-and-such god. Therefore, Jesus is based on such-and-such god. But, in this form, the argument seems to commit the "after this, therefore because of this" fallacy.

As a final word Foreman points out, following Hugo Rahner, that insofar as "humans are religious beings" (as Proverbial wisdom often asserts and which Christianity seems explicitly to hold), we should expect that the myriad forms of human religion should have numerous points of similarity and overlap - symbolically, doxastically, and practically. This really should not surprise reflective observers. Of course, substantial comparisons can be interesting. But if they are to amount to more than curious anecdotes, such comparisons will have to be meticulously drawn and contrasts will have to be soberly evaluated. In some cases, two hour presentations fail to be sufficiently meticulous or sober. A fortiori, we should be very suspicious about hastily put together text-images.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The "Gospel of Judas" and "Yezidism" ("Yazidism")

The Gospel of Judas

What is now known as the "Gospel of Judas" is basically one of several texts, written in Coptic between AD 140-160, which is recorded on a document that has been called "Codex Tchacos," and which represents a series of alleged exchanges between "Jesus" and "Judas Iscariot."

Bart Ehrman comments that "[T]he ...gospel...portrays Judas quite differently from anything we previously knew. Here he is not the evil, corrupt, devil-inspired follower of Jesus who betrayed his master by handing him over to his enemies. He is instead Jesus' closest intimate and friend, the one who understood Jesus better than anyone else, who turned Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus wanted him to do so. In handing him over, Judas performed the greatest service imaginable. According to this gospel, Jesus wanted to escape this material world that stands opposed to God and return to his heavenly home." ("Christianity Turned on Its Head: The Alternative Vision of the Gospel of Judas," in Rodophe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas (Washington DC: National Geographic, 2006), pp. 79-80.)

For example, in the text Jesus is represented as telling Judas: "[Y]ou will exceed all of them [presumably, the other folks we know as the Apostles]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me." (Loc. Cit., p. 43.)

So in Christian Tradition and Scripture, Judas is the betrayer of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. In Gnostic Tradition and Scripture, however, he is the Enlightened enabler of the Gnostic Christ's secret mission. 

Eblis/Iblis/Tawsi Melek

There is an interesting tale told apparently circulated in Persian, Arabic, and Islamic religious tradition. Apparently: 

"Eblis (Iblis, Haris - "despair") - in Persian and Arabic lore, Eblis is the equivalent of the Christian Satan. ... 'Before his fall he [Eblis] was called Azazel. When Adam was created, God commanded all the angels to worship him [Adam], but Eblis refused.' ... Thereupon God turned Eblis into a shetan (devil) and he became the father of devils. ..." ("Eblis," Gustav Davidson, A Dictionary of Angels including the Fallen Angels (New York: Free Press, 1971), p. 101.)

We need to keep careful track of the names, here. "Shetan" is given as a variant of "Shaitan" (also spelled "Shaytan") in: Patricia Turner and Charles Russell Coulter, Dictionary of Ancient Dieties (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), "Shaitan," p. 422.

Aleister Crowley's disciple Kenneth Grant writes that "...that most ancient god whose image was worshipped in the deserts" was named "Shaitan, and, long ages earlier, ...Set, the soul or double of Horus." (The Magical Revival, http://www.hermetics.org/pdf/magick_revival.pdf) Grant further identifies Shaitan with Satan (among other figures): "Shaitan, Satan, or Set, is Hoor-paar-Kraat, the concealed aspect of Horus, whose manifest side is Ra-Hoor-Khuit. Shaitan is the god of the South..." (Ibid.)

Further interesting connections with Eblis/Satan/Shaitan/Set are as follows: "Iblis Eblis (Islamic) The Prince of Darkness. Chief of the Jinn. Originally he was the angel Azazel. ..." (Turner and Coulter, op. cit., p. 231.) Additionally, "Set" or "Seth" is a name with a number of relevant occurrences. First of all, it designates the Egyptian deity that the Greeks called Typhon. Below, Set (with the head of the unknown and so-called "Set-animal") is pictured with the Waas Scepter (staff of chaos or death, or Phoenix Wand) in his right hand, and the "key of life" (ankh, or crux ansata).

Second, "Seth [Hebrew: Shet]" also refers to the third son of Adam and Eve. "After Cain killed his brother Abel and was banished, Eve bore another son to her husband, Adam. She called him Seth, saying, 'God has appointed me for another child instead of Abel, for Cain slew him' (Gen. 4:25). ... The image of God that was conferred upon the human race in Genesis 1:26-27 was transmitted through the line of Seth..." (Who's Who in The Bible: An Illustrated Biographical Dictionary (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1994) "Seth," p. 393.)

Third, "Seth" is "one of the 7 archons in the gnostic system" (Davidson, op. cit., p. 268.) "Archon" is "a Greek term meaning 'ruler'... [and] is the name of a class of entities who played an important role in Gnostic thought and who are roughly comparable to evil archangels" (James R. Lewis and Evelyn Dorothy Oliver, Angels A to Z (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996), "Archon," p. 51).

Fourth, "Sethian" is a name given to one of the groups of Second century Gnostics. It was the Gnostics who held that "...Seth was the founder of a special 'generation,' the chosen ones, the sparks of light" (N.T. Wright, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), p. 34.). Ehrman remarks that "...not everyone has a spark of the divine within them: Only some of us do. The other people are the creations of the inferior god of this world." (Op. cit., p. 86.)

Incidentally, Ehrman mentions that another group of Gnostics (which may or may not have been the same as the "Sethians") were referred to by Irenaeus as the "Cainites" (Ibid., p. 90). In general, Gnostics held that the Creator-god (or demiurge) was a fool ("saklas") they identified this entity with the "god of the Old Testament" such that "...all the figures in Jewish and Christian history who stood against God - Cain, the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, and eventually Judas Iscariot - were the ones who had seen the truth and understood the secrets necessary for salvation. ... Anything that God commanded, they opposed, and anything that God opposed, they supported" (Ibid., p. 90.).

This viewpoint practically expresses verbatim the (Rabelaisian) Thelemic mystical worldview of Aleister Crowley.  

Alright, now Grant further states that "[T]he oldest of all deities - Set or Shaitan - was adored in the deserts by the Yezidi." And he elsewhere informs his readers that "the Yezidi" are "the 'devil' worshippers of Lower Mesopotamia." (Op. cit.

The Yezidi (Yazidi), in turn, refer to "Shaitan" as "Tawsi Melek" - usually avoiding the name "Shaitan" so as to discourage his association with Satan. Here is what the Yezidi say about Tawsi Melek:

"The Yezidis believe that Tawsi Melek is every place in the universe at every moment. ... To those who call upon him with great devotion, Tawsi Melek may manifest in a variety forms, including a bright light, a rainbow, a boy, a young man, a snake, and, of course, a peacock. ... The Peacock Angel has been falsely accused of being Satan or the Devil for hundreds of years by censuring Moslems. ... Tawsi Melek is recognized by the Yesidis to be king of the entire universe, including Earth, but over the centuries both Moslems and Christians have ascribed Luciferian connotations to the 'King of the World.' Moreover, the Yezidis belief that Tawsi Melek was the co-creator of the universe with the Supreme God could have inspired a dualistic Islamic philosopher to misconstrue him as an eternally separate and opposite spirit from God. Since God is eternally good, according to Islamic philosophy, this would automatically make Tawsi Melek the Evil One. ... The alternate name for Tawsi Melek they refer to is not Azazel, but Aziz, a name meaning 'something precious.' ... The Yezidis honor the goat because, like the Hindus’ cow, it sacrifices itself and supplies many of their needs. It gives them milk, wool, etc." (http://www.yeziditruth.org/more-about-the-peacock-angel)

Of course, there is much of interest in the above collection. The attribution to Tawsi Melek of (something like) the classical theistic incommuincable divine attribute of omnipresence, hearkens to the description given in Isaiah: "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" (14:12-14, KJV).

The mention of manifestation as "a bright light" is suggestive both of Lucifer ("light-bearer," Phosphorus) as well as the "Dog-Star," Sirius of Canis Major, as mentioned by Kenneth Grant in connection with Set/Shaitan/Satan.

The rainbow could be thought suggestive, in a contemporary context, to the gay rights movement (another possible connection comes via Ehrman's lumping together of Cain and the men of Sodom and Gomorrah).

The "snake" is of course reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden (linked by Crowley and Grant to Kundalini), cf. Revelation 12:9: "The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray" (NIV).

The author of the quoted passage explicitly draws the link between Tawsi Melek and the Biblical "god of the age"/"god of this world" as per 2 Corinthians 4:4: "Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe" (NLT; among other passages, e.g., Matthew 4:9 and 9:34; Ephesians 2:2; John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11; et. al.). As "co-creator," he's linked to something like the concept of the Platonic Demiurgos - which introduces a complication in the sense that the Gnostics held that the demiurge was basically a fool. However, this is not, I think, an insuperable difficulty to the present suggestions. Moreover, even the revised "Aziz" (from the overtly evil "Azazel" or "Azaziel") is still somewhat evocative of, and similarly to, "Azza," an alternative name for "Shemyaza"/"Semyaza"/Semjaza/Semiaza (etc.), "a fallen angel who is suspended between Heaven and earth (along with Azzael) as punishment for having had carnal knowledge of mortal women" (Davidson, op. cit., p. 65.).

"He was the leader of the evil angels who fell, or one of their leaders. ... It is said he now hangs, head down, and is the constellation Orion. ... Levi, Transcendental Magic, suggests that Orion 'would be identical with the angel Michael doing battle with the dragon, and the appearance of this sign in the sky would be, for the cabalist, a portent of victory and happiness'," (Ibid., p. 265.)

Jim Brandon relates the strange story, apparently told by some alleged "UFO-abductees" that there is a war of sorts going on between "friendly" aliens from Sirius and "wicked" aliens from Orion (cf. Rebirth of Pan, pp. 232-3, et. al.). Finally, the goat symbolism is patent.

Crowley connects Capricorn, the deity Pan, Baphomet, and Satan (cf. The Book of Thoth [Stamford, CT: US Games Sys. Inc., 1996, 1944], p. 105.) - all of which are represented in the Tarot's "major arcana" ("trumps"). Concerning ATU XV. The Devil, he writes: "This card ...refers to Capricornus [the goat - MJB]...[which] sign is ruled by Saturn...Baphomet, the ass-headed idol of the Knights of the Temple...Pan...Pan Pangenetor..." (Ibid.).

Finally, it is noteworthy that "Melek" ("King") is closely linked to Moloch (alt.: Molech, Molek). "A deity bearing the title Melek, but corrupted to Molek, was worshipped in the next period." (Source: W. Carleton Wood, "The Religion of Canaan: From the Earliest Times to the Hebrew Conquest," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1/2 [1916], p. 90, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3259344>.)

"The Gospel of Shaitan"

Recall Davidson's description of the tradition surrounding Iblis/Shaitan. He read in the Koran: "...And when we said to the angels, 'Adore Adam,' they adored him, save only Iblis, who was of the jinn, who revolted from the bidding of his Lord." (Sura 18.48)

The Yezidi say that this is merely a false "allegation" against Tawsi Melek - "part of the Moslems’ attempt to convince the world of his Satanic nature" (http://www.yeziditruth.org/more-about-the-peacock-angel). Yezidi maintain that it simply is not true that: "The Peacock Angel was in the Garden of Eden and because of his pride he refused God’s order to bow to Adam" or that: "This show of pride caused the fall of Lucifer and established an eternal enmity between God and the Peacock Angel" (Ibid.)

The truth, Yezidi claim, is that: "In the Yezidi tradition it is indeed stated that the Peacock Angel was present in the Garden of Eden. He failed to bow down to Adam because he was obeying God. The Yezidis claim that previous to the creation of Adam the Supreme God had informed all Seven Great Angels never bow down to any other entity other than Him" (Ibid., emphasis added).

"[T]he Yazidi story regarding Tawûsê Melek's rise to favor with God is almost identical to the story of the jinn Iblis in Islam, except that Yazidis revere Tawûsê Melek for refusing to submit to Adam, while Muslims believe that Iblis' refusal to submit caused him to fall out of Grace with God, and to later become Satan himself." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yazidi)

"Yazidi accounts of creation differ from that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They believe that God first created Tawûsê Melek from his own illumination (Ronahî) and the other six archangels were created later. God ordered Tawûsê Melek not to bow to other beings. Then God created the other archangels and ordered them to bring him dust (Ax) from the Earth (Erd) and build the body of Adam. Then God gave life to Adam from his own breath and instructed all archangels to bow to Adam. The archangels obeyed except for Tawûsê Melek. In answer to God, Tawûsê Melek replied, "How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust." Then God praised him and made him the leader of all angels and his deputy on the Earth. (This likely furthers what some see as a connection to the Islamic Shaytan, as according to the Quran he too refused to bow to Adam at God's command, though in this case it is seen as being a sign of Shaytan's sinful pride.) Hence the Yazidis believe that Tawûsê Melek is the representative of God on the face of the Earth, and comes down to the Earth on the first Wednesday of Nisan (April). Yazidis hold that God created Tawûsê Melek on this day, and celebrate it as New Year's Day. Yazidis argue that the order to bow to Adam was only a test for Tawûsê Melek, since if God commands anything then it must happen. (Bibe, dibe). In other words, God could have made him submit to Adam, but gave Tawûsê Melek the choice as a test. They believe that their respect and praise for Tawûsê Melek is a way to acknowledge his majestic and sublime nature. This idea is called "Knowledge of the Sublime" (Zanista Ciwaniyê). Şêx Adî has observed the story of Tawûsê Melek and believed in him" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melek_Taus).


Hinduism and Deepak Chopra's "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success"

Chopra & Hinduism

Metaphysics (What exists?):

I. Being

Spirit [brahman] is ultimate reality and there is nothing real (or at least “really-real”) besides spirit. This is usually construed both as a species of monism – the idea that “all reality is one sort of thing – as well as a species of pantheism – the idea that “all is god.”

3 Components of reality (divisions or aspects of brahman)
1. Spirit – the observer [purusha]
2. Mind – the process of observing [buddhi]
3. Body/Physical/Ego – the (thing) observed [prakriti]

3 Characteristics [gunas] of the physical [prakriti]
1. Activity – energy/passion [rajas]
2. Transparency – goodness/love [sattva]
3. Inactivity – inertia [tamas]

II. Becoming

The process of creation is that of ontologically identical [“Atman is Brahman”], but numerically plural spirits [atman, purusha] in motion [buddhi] manifesting itself as the physical [prakriti].

Epistemology (How does one come to knowledge?)

The process of coming-to-know is that of re-orienting the process of will [buddhi] such that the illusion-self, or ego [prakriti] will be dissolved and the true-self, or spirit [atman, purusha] will overcome its ignorance [maya].

4 practical elements of the will or discriminator [buddhi] being re-oriented to overcome suffering [dukkha] and ignorance [maya]:
1. Silence [Mauna]
2. Meditation [dhyana]*
3. Non-judgment**
4. Nature activities***

* “Meditation,” here, can (seemingly) be narrowly or broadly construed. Narrowly, it would appear to correspond to (something like) the repetition of the so-called “transformative syllables” (like the pranava mantra, “Om”). Broadly, it may be thought to correspond to the entire “8 Limbs” of the Yoga-Sutra, proper: Abstention [yama], observance [niyama], posture [asana], breathing [pranayana], insensibility [pratyahara], concentration [dharana], meditation [dhyana], and “oneness with Brahman” [samadhi].

** There does not appear to me to be a straightforward analog to “non-judgment” in classical Hinduism. On the contrary, one of the “5 Abstentions” in Yoga is a commitment to truth [satya]. And the very concept of “truth” requires a complementary notion of “non-truth” or falsity. And, presumably, the ability to distinguish the true from the not-true depends upon some sort of judgment faculty or discrimination. Additionally, in Samkhya, the form of Hinduism from which Chopra apparently draws heavily (if not exclusively), the very word “Samkhya” means “enumeration” and has to do with the correct explication and recognition – for the purpose of enlightenment – of the categories of reality. In Samkhya, it is the mind [boddhi] which is our “discriminator.” And we need discrimination to rightly construe reality, cast off illusion [maya], and achieve enlightenment [bodhi, moksha, Samadhi, etc.]. Chopra himself posits several fundamental constituents of reality – chiefly, spirit, mind, and ego or body. Hence, Chopra is either recommending these categories to us as true judgments of what reality is, or he is not. Chopra thus faces a dilemma. If he is recommending his metaphysics to us as true, then his principle of “non-judgment” is either blatantly contradictory or selectively applied. If he is not recommending his metaphysics to us as true, then, frankly, we have no motivation at all to consider his recommendation. For why should we consider Chopra’s notions if Chopra himself does not even think that they are the truth?

*** I could find no precise analog in classical Hinduism to Chopra’s advocacy of (a vague notion of) “nature activities”. However, classical Hinduism does think of life as divided into various stages.
4 Stages of Life:
1. Student [brahmacarin]
2. Householder [grhastha]
3. Forest-dweller [vanaprastha]
4. Hermit/renouncer [sannyasin]
The third stage of “forest-dweller” may be what Chopra has in mind. Although, standard presentations of these four stages usually depicts that as at least possibly figurative. However, whether literal or figurative, the notion of forest-dwelling seems compatible with Chopra’s suggestion to commune with nature.

III. Ethics/Soteriology (What is good and right? What is redemption?)

The central problem (the “human condition”): Humans are plagued with ignorance [maya] of our true natures and this ignorance leads to suffering [dukkha].

What is good and right is governed by a sort of cosmic law [dharma]. Chopra actually gives the word “dharma” in his book. He renders it as “purpose in life.” Elsewhere, the term is given variously as: “law”, “truth”, “maintenance”, and “duty”. The idea of “purpose” and “duty” are connected because in Hindu thought one’s purpose is bound up with one’s station [caste] in life.

4 + 1 Hindu Castes:
1. Priests [brahmins]
2. Warrior-nobles [ksatriyas]
3. Merchant-farmers [vaisyas]
4. Servants [sudras]
0. Outcastes/untouchables [dalits]

Additionally, classical Hinduism is very misogynistic. Hence, there is at least a shadow-side side to the caste system, whereby males and females are further differentiated.

Karma” designates the effect of previous lives and actions – whether “positive” or “negative” – on future possibilities. Karma governs reincarnation. It is the impersonal principle of “universal justice”.

One’s present station in life – in terms of genus, species, gender, and caste – is governed by karma. And one’s dharma-purpose is determined by one’s present station in life.

IV. A Few Minor Critical Observations of Chopra's Book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

In general, Chopra appears to me to be a fairly orthodox Hindu of the Samkhya-Yoga variety. As such, standard objections against Hinduism would apply. For example, there is a charge that standard formulations of Hinduism are sexist and far too parochial. But, let these general concerns pass.

More interesting to me are the issues of internal coherence is Chopra’s idiosyncratic presentation.

These specific concerns have a common undercurrent. Namely, in order to appear to integrate “Western science” and “Eastern philosophy” Chopra has to depart from standard formulations of both Western science and Eastern philosophy. For instance, Chopra speaks of cells as having “higher selves” and as being “perfectly” able to adapt and respond to their environments. However, he elsewhere connects the ability to create consciously with the possession of a nervous system, which cells plainly do not have. Additionally, it is not clear how cellular perfection can be reasonably inferred from evidence which much surely acknowledge all sort of cytological pathologies, including various cancers, viruses, and the like. Additionally, Chopra detaches “purpose” from the Hindu caste system and introduces the novelty of a sort of broad-based pursuit of affluence. Possibly, Chopra is assuming that his readership, being born in the United States, has, in virtue of being born in the United States and not into the abject poverty of an obviously “third world” country, shown that they have pretty good karma. For if they didn’t, they would have been born somewhere else. But, he doesn’t say this explicitly. In any case, the focus on wealth accrual is not found in classical Hinduism, which focuses upon overcoming ignorance and achieving enlightenment.

Chopra trades both ways on several concepts:

  1. Certainty: Chopra seems to imply that people can be certain that they have a unique talent and purpose. But, he elsewhere holds up uncertainty as a sort of epistemic virtue.
  2. Possibility: Chopra describes his metaphysical system as one in which possibilities abound – infinite possibilities, in fact. However, he explicitly says that out of an infinity of possibilities that presents itself to us every second, only one is the correct choice that will enhance our happiness and the happiness of our friends.
  3. Judgment: Chopra claims to advocate non-judgment (presumably in line with the politically correct, Pollyanna maxim of “tolerance”). However, he presents an entire metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological-soteriological system to his readers as the truth. Additionally, one cannot consistently affirm a “no judgment” principle and also affirm that there are right choices/actions as opposed to wrong ones. But, Chopra does both.
  4. Boundaries: On the one hand, Chopra wants to affirm that there are no real physical boundaries. For example, the entire universe is just an extension of one’s body, he writes. However, he does affirm that different, localized bodies have different, discreet “higher selves” and purposes. It’s not clear where these divisions of intention, purpose, and spirituality come from, if “all is one.” And it’s not clear why “humans” have purposes that are distinct from their cells. And there are many related difficulties.
  5. Response and anticipation: Chopra writes that responding to situations in anticipation is always “fear based.” However, if a reader were to adopt Chopra’s system, it’s not clear that the reader wouldn’t do so precisely because he or she anticipated good things and wanted to respond to reality the way Chopra advocates. But, then, either Chopra’s system is “fear based” also. Or, not all response-anticipation pairs are fear based.

Finally, and more seriously, there seems to me to be a pervasive difficulty running through Chopra’s entire presentation.

V. Major Criticism of Chopra 

To review, Chopra sees humans as composites of spirit, will, and ego. The ego is the “false self”. The will is the “process of observing”. And the spirit is the “true self.” But, there are passages, too numerous for me presently to exhaustively enumerate, in which Chopra uses the word “you” without being clear as to which of the pieces of the composite self he is wanting to designate. For example, he writes: “As you gain more and more access to your true nature, you will also spontaneously receive creative thoughts…” (p. 20). “When your internal reference point is the egoyou spend energy is a wasteful way. … When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything that you want. When your internal reference point is your spirit…, you can harness the power of love…” (p. 56). “…seek my higher self, which is beyond my ego…discover my unique talents…ask myself how I am best suited to serve humanity…” (p. 100). “If you put your attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, you will see that you can manifest anything you want – all the affluence, money, and success that you desire” (p. 109). And examples can be multiplied.

The central difficulty then, or so it seems to me, is that there is a fundamental ambiguity to the word “you” that shoots through Chopra’s entire presentation. For, each occurrence of “you” could designate “spirit” (whether individual or ultimate), “mind”, or “ego”. And it is either not always clear which is intended. Or, when it seems clear, Chopra’s point is either undercut or the motivation a reader has for adopting his system is severely lessened.

Take just one example, the sentence from p. 109: “If you put your attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, you will see that you can manifest anything you want – all the affluence, money, and success that you desire.”

This sentence could be read any of the following ways:

If ego-you puts the ego’s attention on these laws and practices the steps outlined in this book, the ego will see that the ego can manifest anything that the ego wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the ego desires” (p. 109).

Or:

If the spirit puts the spirit’s attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, the spirit will see that the spirit can manifest anything that the spirit wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the spirit desires” (p. 109).

But, probably:

If the will puts the will’s attention on these laws and practice the steps outlined in this book, the will will see that the spirit can manifest anything that the spirit wants – all the affluence, money, and success that the spirit desires” (p. 109).

Something like the latter reading is probably correct. However, and here is the practical difficulty, most people attracted to Chopra’s book are probably attracted by the prospect of being able to get what their ego desires. But, plausibly, Chopra’s system is not really designed to fulfill ego-desires. It’s designed to show that the spirit you have is one and the same with the spirit of everyone else and indeed the entire world-spirit. But, then, the real desires that will be fulfilled are not the ones that YOU (the ego) THINK that you have NOW; rather, the real desires that will be fulfilled are the one’s that your true self (the spirit) has and which YOU (as will) will only discover when your ego subsides and you overcome ignorance and gain enlightenment.

But then, at any time:

EITHER:

  1. You – as spirit – are truly, consciously plugged into the creative power of the universe

OR:

  1. You – as ego – have various distinctive, idiosyncratic desires.

But, it won’t be both. Hence, if you have the power to realize the ego’s desires, you won’t have the ego desires any more. And if you do have the ego desires, you won’t have the true power.

But, then, the point of Chopra’s system will have been deflated for many people.

Classical Hinduism strives to realize that the true self is really one with the universe. One gets “affluence” only at the price of losing one’s distinctiveness.

[Matthew Bell (Composed/Compiled Spring 2012, Posted Fall 2012)]

Friday, August 3, 2012

"According to the Bible" Polemic

Here, again, is a further example of "Facebook-polemic."


As many of the deficiencies present in this instance are shared with another recently circulated picture, and as I have already been dealt with them in a previous post, I will try to keep the present text brief. As with the example remarked upon previously, one should notice immediately the inconsistency with respect to citation method. Only two of the six bullet-pointed statements have had any citations offered at all. Presumably, the intended audience for this piece will not require documentation of the allegations.

The "men of God" reference betrays a failure to make the elementary distinction between prescription (i.e., roughly, what the Bible advances as normative for marriage) and description (i.e., again roughly, what the Bible merely reports as matters of historical or biographical fact).

Additionally, the picture's mention of Solomon is instructive. The scattered commentary seems to me to give the impression that Solomon's dalliances go unremarked upon Biblically, or that Solomon was the recipient of unconditional favors, when in fact even a cursory reading of 1 Kings 11 shows clearly that Solomon is remembered as having turned from God and "fallen from grace," as it were. His having had carnal knowledge of roughly 1,000 women is related in the Biblical text to his having done "what was evil in the sight of the Lord" and the fact that he "did not wholly follow the Lord" (1 Kings 11:6).

Moreover, the reference to a woman marrying her husband's brother is misleading, for the command is not issued in the first place to the relevant woman, but to the relevant man (i.e., the deceased husband's brother, or "levir"). The idea was to keep the deceased husband's Promised Land share in the family as well as to provide for the woman (and any female children she may have had). For it would have been probable during some periods, given the socio-cultural realities, that apart from the criticized legal provision, the passing of her husband would have rendered the widow destitute. Furthermore, the reference to "levirate marriage" in Mark 12:18ff is apparently primary historical and is mentioned in the context of a set up for a question, posed to Jesus by the group of religious leaders known as the Sadducees, regarding the general Resurrection (in which the Sadducees disbelieved). In any case, the passage cited by the picture does not set down levirate marriage as a law, it merely quotes Moses to facilitate a sort of academic point. Levirate law is a difficult and obscure matter. It is arguable that such a law was repealed during a later period in Biblical history (as hinted by passages such as Leviticus 20:21, etc.), it is important to bear in mind that the Bible itself places conditions on when the law applies (for the relevant passage begins with "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son..." Deuteronomy 25:5, italics added), and the Bible itself provides for a dispensation (cf.: the passage beginning "However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife..." Loc. Cit., vv.7ff). If anything, concerned readers should present this sort of consideration to adherents of Rabbinic Judaism. Somehow, denouncing Christianity is usually foremost in the minds of Deuteronomical critics, when Christians often hold that many of the civil and ceremonial laws are no longer even binding. It is Rabbinic Judaism, as the heirs of the Pharisaism that Jesus himself criticized, that preserves the tapestry of (what anti-Christians usually consider) tired legalism and, in fact, has labored extensively expanding the casuistry.

Another constellation of difficulties lies in the assertion (as the text stands) that "God frequently blessed polygamists...". For one thing, there is an underlying ambiguity. The statement that:

1. God blessed (presumably, in some specific way, W) Person X, who was a polygamist

is ambiguous between (at the very least):

2. God blessed (presumably, in some specific way, W) Person X BECAUSE he was a polygamist

and:

3. God blessed (presumably, in some specific way, W) Person X DESPITE his being a polygamist

And, in general, God "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). So, one can expect that sinners do frequently (even daily) receive God's blessing. Although this by no means suggests that God sends his blessings because of (let alone as a reward for) a person's sins. It rather seems to indicate that God, in his mercy, routinely blesses people despite their sin, and for the purpose of giving them time and motivation to repent. "He is patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

But admittedly, these are merely scattered criticisms of an already haphazard Facebook polemic. Frankly, it is ultimately unclear what the point of the original picture-post is even supposed to be. For the author simply ends with a sarcastic appeal for "forgiveness" on the basis of his or her lack of "interest" in what he or she has very sloppily termed "Traditional Family Values", despite the author's utter disregard or ignorance of the actual *tradition* that he or she purports to designate.

Therefore, the entire enterprise seems in the end to collapse into a point about the author's psychology. Truly, I have no idea what might "interest" the author. And, with all due respect, I don't care. Although, I think any careful reader, Christian or not, can surmise what does *not* interest the author - beyond the ersatz "Tradition" (which seems more a product of the author's mind than of historical Christianity). Namely, the author also seems uninterested in careful and sober argument, seeming to prefer instead to rely on unsystematic bluster. There is very little of substance in this, and I see no credible threat to the genuine, historical Christian (or even Western) tradition regarding the institution of marriage. I will happily review any careful and relevant argument. In the meantime, I hope Christians (in specific) may then be forgiven by the author for not being much interested in his or her little text-image.