Posts filed under ‘Bible’
I’ve been reading Josephus’ Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews in recent months, and I came across this delightful story set around 500 BC in Persia – giving an interesting twist to the decree to rebuild Jerusalem as told in the Bible.
Now, in the first year of the king’s reign, Darius feasted those that were about him, and those born in his house, with the rulers of the Medes, and princes of the Persians, and the toparchs of India and Ethiopia, and the generals of the armies of his hundred and twenty-seven provinces. But when they had eaten and drunk to satiety, and abundantly, they every one departed to go to bed at their own houses, and Darius the king went to bed; but after he had rested a little part of the night, he awaked, and not being able to sleep any more, he fell into conversation with the three guards of his body, and promised, that to him who should make an oration about points that he should inquire of, such as should be most agreeable to truth, and to the dictates of wisdom, he would grant it as a reward of his victory, to put on a purple garment, and to drink in cups of gold, and to sleep upon gold, and to have a chariot with bridles of gold, and a head tire of fine linen, and a chain of gold about his neck, and to sit next to himself, on account of his wisdom; “and,” says he, “he shall be called my cousin.” Now when he had promised to give them these gifts, he asked the first of them, “Whether wine was not the strongest?”—the second, “Whether kings were not such?”—and the third, “Whether women were not such? or whether truth was not the strongest of all?” When he had proposed that they should make their inquiries about these problems, he went to rest; but in the morning he sent for his great men, his princes, and toparchs of Persia and Media, and set himself down in the place where he used to give audience, and bid each of the guards of his body to declare what they thought proper concerning the proposed questions, in the hearing of them all.
Accordingly, the first of them began to speak of the strength of wine, and demonstrated it thus: “When,” said he, “I am to give my opinion of wine, O you men, I find that it exceeds every thing, by the following indications: It deceives the mind of those that drink it, and reduces that of the king to the same state with that of the orphan, and he who stands in need of a tutor; and erects that of the slave to the boldness of him that is free; and that of the needy becomes like that of the rich man, for it changes and renews the souls of men when it gets into them; and it quenches the sorrow of those that are under calamities, and makes men forget the debts they owe to others, and makes them think themselves to be of all men the richest; it makes them talk of no small things, but of talents, and such other names as become wealthy men only; nay more, it makes them insensible of their commanders, and of their kings, and takes away the remembrance of their friends and companions, for it arms men even against those that are dearest to them, and makes them appear the greatest strangers to them; and when they are become sober, and they have slept out their wine in the night, they arise without knowing any thing they have done in their cups. I take these for signs of power, and by them discover that wine is the strongest and most insuperable of all things.”
As soon as the first had given the forementioned demonstrations of the strength of wine, he left off; and the next to him began to speak about the strength of a king, and demonstrated that it was the strongest of all, and more powerful than any thing else that appears to have any force or wisdom. He began his demonstration after the following manner; and said, “They are men who govern all things; they force the earth and the sea to become profitable to them in what they desire, and over these men do kings rule, and over them they have authority. Now those who rule over that animal which is of all the strongest and most powerful, must needs deserve to be esteemed insuperable in power and force. For example, when these kings command their subjects to make wars, and undergo dangers, they are hearkened to; and when they send them against their enemies, their power is so great that they are obeyed. They command men to level mountains, and to pull down walls and towers; nay, when they are commanded to be killed and to kill, they submit to it, that they may not appear to transgress the king’s commands; and when they have conquered, they bring what they have gained in the war to the king. Those also who are not soldiers, but cultivate the ground, and plough it, and when, after they have endured the labor and all the inconveniences of such works of husbandry, they have reaped and gathered in their fruits, they bring tributes to the king; and whatsoever it is which the king says or commands, it is done of necessity, and that without any delay, while he in the mean time is satiated with all sorts of food and pleasures, and sleeps in quiet. He is guarded by such as watch, and such as are, as it were, fixed down to the place through fear; for no one dares leave him, even when he is asleep, nor does any one go away and take care of his own affairs; but he esteems this one thing the only work of necessity, to guard the king, and accordingly to this he wholly addicts himself. How then can it be otherwise, but that it must appear that the king exceeds all in strength, while so great a multitude obeys his injunctions?”
Now when this man had held his peace, the third of them, who was Zorobabel, began to instruct them about women, and about truth, who said thus: “Wine is strong, as is the king also, whom all men obey, but women are superior to them in power; for it was a woman that brought the king into the world; and for those that plant the vines and make the wine, they are women who bear them, and bring them up: nor indeed is there any thing which we do not receive from them; for these women weave garments for us, and our household affairs are by their means taken care of, and preserved in safety; nor can we live separate from women. And when we have gotten a great deal of gold and silver, and any other thing that is of great value, and deserving regard, and see a beautiful woman, we leave all these things, and with open mouth fix our eyes upon her countenance, and are willing to forsake what we have, that we may enjoy her beauty, and procure it to ourselves. We also leave father, and mother, and the earth that nourishes us, and frequently forget our dearest friends, for the sake of women; nay, we are so hardy as to lay down our lives for them. But what will chiefly make you take notice of the strength of women is this that follows: Do not we take pains, and endure a great deal of trouble, and that both by land and sea, and when we have procured somewhat as the fruit of our labors, do not we bring them to the women, as to our mistresses, and bestow them upon them? Nay, I once saw the king, who is lord of so many people, smitten on the face by Apame, the daughter of Rabsases Themasius, his concubine, and his diadem taken away from him, and put upon her own head, while he bore it patiently; and when she smiled he smiled, and when she was angry he was sad; and according to the change of her passions, he flattered his wife, and drew her to reconciliation by the great humiliation of himself to her, if at my time he saw her displeased at him.”
And when the princes and rulers looked one upon another, he began to speak about truth; and he said, “I have already demonstrated how powerful women are; but both these women themselves, and the king himself, are weaker than truth; for although the earth be large, and the heaven high, and the course of the sun swift, yet are all these moved according to the will of God, who is true and righteous, for which cause we also ought to esteem truth to be the strongest of all things, and that what is unrighteous is of no force against it. Moreover, all things else that have any strength are mortal and short-lived, but truth is a thing that is immortal and eternal. It affords us not indeed such a beauty as will wither away by time, nor such riches as may be taken away by fortune, but righteous rules and laws. It distinguishes them from injustice, and puts what is unrighteous to rebuke.”
So when Zorobabel had left off his discourse about truth, and the multitude had cried out aloud that he had spoken the most wisely, and that it was truth alone that had immutable strength, and such as never would wax old, the king commanded that he should ask for somewhat over and above what he had promised, for that he would give it him because of his wisdom, and that prudence wherein he exceeded the rest; “and thou shalt sit with me,” said the king, “and shalt be called my cousin.” When he had said this, Zorobabel put him in mind of the vow he had made in case he should ever have the kingdom. Now this vow was, “to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God; as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon. And this,” said he, “is that request which thou now permittest me to make, on account that I have been judged to be wise and understanding.’”
In a recent discussion on certain historical accounts from Antiquity, I brought up Donald Kagan’s concept of the “higher naïveté.” This caused one of my discussion partners to mention the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur and his notion of the “second naïveté.”
I had never heard of it, and all my knowledge of Paul Ricoeur (which is very little) has been second hand. But I do actually have several of his books in my e-library, and I took the opportunity to dig around a little.
From what I could find out, Ricoeur uses the idea of a second naïveté mostly within the context of religious faith and hermeneutics, that is, for how to read and interpret a text. Within Christian hermeneutics, this text is mostly the Bible, but principles of hermeneutics can also apply to other texts.
In Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur talks about the philosophy of suspicion set up by Freud and others, and he says that the opposite of suspicion is faith. But what faith? “No longer, to be sure, the first faith of the simple soul, but rather the second faith of one who has engaged in hermeneutics, faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith.” The maxim of such post-critical faith is, “Believe in order to understand, understand in order to believe.”
Ricoeur sees the second naïveté as the climax of the battle between reductionism and “a retrieval of the original meaning of the symbol” (see The Rule of Metaphor). If I understand him correctly, he says that you can either (1) reduce a text to “nothing but …” and hence explain its meaning away, (2) attempt to retrieve the original meaning of the text, or (3) wrestle with both of these opposing approaches to the text to finally reach a second naïveté, which does not completely reject criticism of the text, but still finds it relevant for now.
This second naïveté is, as Richard Kearney has put it in an essay, “authentic faith after the dogmatic prejudices of one’s first naïveté have been purged.” Kearney says that Ricoeer “speaks accordingly of debunking false religious fetishisms so that the symbols of the eschatological sacred may speak again” (“Returning to God after God: Levinas, Derrida, Ricoeur”).
One way of summarizing Ricoeur’s distinctions is to say that there are three stages: the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical stage. The pre-critical is the first naïveté, and the post-critical is the second naïveté. Hans W. Frei says in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition that post-critical reading attempts to do the opposite of what the “masters of suspicion” à la Freud had done and engages in a “hermeneutics of restoration.”
In a similar vein, The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation quotes Ricoeur as saying, “Hermeneutics seem to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen.” The Cambridge Companion goes on to say that “Ricoeur speaks of faith in this context. Idols must be destroyed, but this may generate ‘faith that has undergone criticism, post-critical faith… a second naïveté’ [compare quote above]. This has direct relevance to biblical studies. The axis of suspicion encourages Ideologiekritik of the text and suspicion concerning the vested interests of the interpreter and the interpreter’s community-traditions. What subtexts lie beneath both the biblical text and the interpreter’s goals, methods and conclusions? We begin to travel the road of social and ideological critique of ‘interest’ explored further by Habermas, as well as issues of manipulation and power exposed by Michel Foucault and others. Nevertheless Ricoeur’s most brilliant work stands on the side of retrieval and creative understanding.”
One may even take a very broad brush and see the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical as historical stages of the Christian West, the pre-critical being the general Christian consensus prior to Modernity, the critical being the reductionism that marked Modernity, and the post-critical being the Zeitgeist of post-modernism.
But this really is a very broad brush, since, unlike the fragmentization of post-modernism, “Ricoeur does not wish hermeneutics to collapse into a diversity that loses its overall coherence and sense of direction. He resists the postmodern turn of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, even if he appreciates their concerns in the context of intellectual life in the Paris of the late 1960s and 1970s; and shares some of them. The greatness of Gadamer and especially Ricoeur lies in their capacity to address the distrust and suspicions of postmodern contextualism while insisting that life and truth also offer much more” (Cambridge Companion).
As I said, while Ricoeur seems to place the second naïveté primarily in the context of religious faith, one can probably apply it in a wider context as well.
My recent thoughts on Virgil and the Founding Fathers of the United States raise an important question, namely: Why is it that we seem to have the need to create mythological and semi-mythological pasts for the group (such as a nation) to which we belong?
If anyone doubts that we still do create semi-mythological pasts for ourselves, the United States does serve as a pretty good example. Even though we have, in comparison to the founding of Rome, an abundance of hard historical facts about Columbus, about the first settlers in North America, about the war for independence and the founding of the American republic, this has not kept Americans from mythologizing these events.
(Just to clarify: I am using the word myth in a broad sense here, not in the specific sense of being stories about the gods, although, since the notion of divine destiny is so strong in American myths, they might qualify as myths even on that account.)
In these myths, Columbus becomes a great heroic figure who, standing alone, bravely challenges the whole worldview of his time. George Washington becomes larger than life, a symbol rather than a real man of flesh and blood, around which many legends can be spun.
To repeat the question, why is it that we have this propensity to mythologize? Is it again this sense of purpose that I talked about in my last posts? Can an empire or an ethnic group or a modern nation state not exist without some common identity that is built on a mythical past?
It can be argued that Homer greatly contributed to giving the loose connection of independent Greek city states a common identity. Without Homer, would the Greeks maybe have never felt any connection to each other at all? How much did Virgil contribute to the success of the Roman Empire? Would it have held together that long without him? Would the English ever have become that strong without looking back at the golden age of King Arthur? What would the Jewish people be without the Hebrew Bible? Would they have survived all these years as a distinct group if they did not have Abraham, Moses and David to draw on?
Or am I overstating the importance of creating a common identity rooted in a certain view of the past?
This need to look back at a larger-than-life past seems especially strong in cases where the identity of a group is not based on ethnicity, such as in the case of the Roman Empire or the United States.
Although even in the case where there is a degree of common ethnicity, there seems to be a need to call up a legendary past, especially when there is disunity among that ethnic group. The Brothers Grimm, after all, did not collect their German fairy tales just for entertainment, but as a nationalistic project to help unify the many German-speaking kingdoms of the early 19th century.
Perhaps a contributing factor to the rise of national myths is that a truly unifying identity needs to be dug up from the bottom, so to speak, from the common people, not imposed from the top. And the common folk just do have a tendency to mythologize the past and thus provide the stuff out of which a national identity can be woven. The Brothers Grimm, at least, seem to have done this quite consciously, trying to get in touch with the common people and digging up a unifying national identity from them. Virgil, too, did not simply make up a bunch of legends, but drew on previous literature, myths and folk tales.
Is such mythologizing necessarily a bad thing or can it also be a good thing that inspires us in positive ways?
The other day, I revisited Virgil’s Aeneid, that great epic poem that tells of the legendary Aeneas, who flees from Troy when the city is burned by the Greeks and ends up in Italy, where he becomes the ancestor of the Romans.
Although I do not wish to draw unwarranted parallels between the founding of Rome and the founding of the United States, I think there is an important point to be made about the Aeneid in relation to the Founding Fathers of the United States.
In spite of not being an American, I find the Founding Fathers utterly fascinating, and I have sometimes asked myself why. Why is it that I feel like I know Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin better than, say, Otto von Bismarck? Why am I more drawn to these figures than I am to many figures of my own European background? I don’t think the reason is primarily that I am married to an American, but that I live in the American age. In the course of the 20th century, the US arguably became the most influential nation in the world, and I think what fascinates me so about the Founding Fathers is their retrospective significance.
If the United States had never reached such a height of influence, if it were ranked as—to use a random number—the 58th most influential country in the world, I doubt that I would be drawn to the Founding Fathers as much as I am. It is precisely the significance of the United States now that lends such significance to the ideas and actions of the Founding Fathers back in the late 18th century. We can look back and read their words, we can look back and study their lives, with the sense that they had purpose, that there was a gravitas on everything they did, that great things were to come out of their small beginnings.
I think this is a similar feeling that Virgil wanted to evoke in the reader. All of Aeneas’ deeds feel significant because the reader knows what would come of them. Aeneas’ time in Carthage is so significant only because the reader knows of the later Punic wars between Carthage and Rome, and that the defeat of Carthage would mark the rise of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean. The Roman reader of the Aeneid would have surely asked, "What would have happened if Aeneas had given in to Dido’s pleading and made Carthage his home? Wouldn’t Carthage then still be the dominant power in the Mediterranean and Rome be insignificant or, worse, would have never been founded?"
So, what might appear as simply a tragic love story between Dido and Aeneas becomes much more than that through the retrospective eyes of Virgil and his readers. There was much more at stake than Dido’s and Aeneas’ personal happiness; there was a fate of nations to be decided. I think we get the same sense when reading about the various decisions of the Founding Fathers.
This writing technique of evoking a sense of purpose through seeing significance retrospectively is also sometimes used in the Bible. For instance, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and then God intervened and said He would provide a sacrifice later on, the significance of the story is not only (or perhaps not even primarily) Abraham’s obedience, but that, according to 2. Chronicles 3:1, Mount Moriah was the exact place where Solomon’s temple would be built several hundred years later and where daily sacrifices would be made to the LORD.
Since Genesis as we now have it was likely written after the building of the first temple, it seems to me that the author of this passage wants to evoke the same kind of feeling in his Israelite/Jewish readers that Virgil wanted to evoke in his Roman readers. It is a sense of purpose, a deep fascination that comes from seeing significance retrospectively.
In my last post, I talked about Hippocrates, often referred to as the father of scientific medicine. Now to the modern scientific mind, it might seem strange that Hippocrates talks about astronomy in connection with health. The puzzle, however, is solved immediately once we realize that the ancients had no sharp distinction between astronomy and astrology.
For the authors whose writings we traditionally attribute to Hippocrates, one
very important aspect of diagnosing and curing a disease was to take the whole environment of a person into consideration, and that environment included the constellations of the stars. “One ought also to be guarded about the rising of
the stars,” writes Hippocrates in Part 11 of Airs, Waters, and Places, “especially
of the Dogstar, then of Arcturus, and then the setting of the Pleiades; for diseases are especially apt to prove critical in those days …”
And in Section III, Point 1 of Epidemics, he lists the stars as one of the very many aspects that were meant to form the diagnosis by the Hippocratic doctors:
“With regard to diseases, the circumstances from which we form a judgment of them are,—by attending to the general nature of all, and the peculiar nature of each individual,—to the disease, the patient, and the applications,—to the person who applies them, as that makes a difference for better or for worse,—to the whole constitution of the season, and particularly to the state of the heavens, and the nature of each country;—to the patient’s habits, regimen, and pursuits;—to his conversation, manners, taciturnity, thoughts, sleep, or absence of sleep, and sometimes his dreams, what and when they occur;—to his picking and scratching;—to his tears;—to the alvine discharges, urine, sputa, and vomitings; and to the changes of diseases from the one into the other;—to the deposits, whether of a deadly or critical character;—to the sweat, coldness, rigor, cough, sneezing, hiccup, respiration, eructation …”
Now if we find it curious that Hippocrates speaks of “the state of the heavens” in connection with health, we might find it equally curious that he does not speak of something much closer to home, namely the human soul. I only found Hippocrates speaking explicitly of souls in connection with politics. Under a monarchy, he says, he “souls” of the subjects are necessarily enslaved to the monarch (see Part 23 of Airs, Waters, and Places).
Why did Hippocrates connect souls with health, especially if we suppose that his understanding of soul was close to Aristotle’s, for whom it meant something closer to the “life essence” of living things, not the soul in the Christian sense. For Aristotle, the flower on my window sill has just as much of a soul as I have, just not a rational soul. It is a living thing, and therefore it has a life essence.
(By the way, the popularly understood Christian meaning of soul as the immortal essence of a human being is not the biblical meaning, either; neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament have a concept of soul quite like later Christian theology which brought together Platonic ideas with biblical ones, creating a new conception of the soul. The writers of the New Testament believed primarily in the resurrection of the body, not in the immortality of the soul—the body being transformed into immortality rather than being the discardable container of immortality.)
I said we might find it curious that Hippocrates does not speak of people’s souls, the reason being that he is so big on restoring people’s overall balance in life as a key to achieving health. One would expect him to also stress the balance in people’s minds, in their psychological well-being: in a word, in their souls. But he doesn’t. Why not?
Perhaps the answer is the same why he does talk about the stars, since he has what we might call a “holistic” approach to medicine. He does not separate out a “life essence” from a person’s whole life, because he sees the life of a person as consisting of the whole human being integrated into his environment.
Or does anyone have a different explanation?
In Psalm 14:1, we find the statement, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Thomas Aquinas and many others have used this verse to talk about atheism versus theism. But what did the Psalmist really have in mind? I doubt it was an intellectual, highly theoretical and abstract disputation about the existence or non-existence of a transcendent Absolute Entity we call “God.”
First of all, the Hebrew word translated as "fool" is not primarily someone who lacks intelligence but who is morally deficient. Second, and in line with that, the whole Psalm is about "evildoers" who "devour" God’s people and oppress the poor. Therefore, the statement about the fool saying in his heart that there is no God is meant to convey: People who suppress their conscience and mistreat other people say to themselves, "There is no one who will take me to account. There is no ultimate justice. I will get away with my crimes."
But neither does the Psalm assert that atheists are necessarily morally deficient. In my understanding, the Psalmist does not say, "All those who deny God’s existence are morally deficient." Rather, he means to say, "All those who blatantly mistreat other people cannot, in their heart of hearts, really believe that there is a God who will hold them accountable."
He does not say, "He who does not believe in God is a fool," but, "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’" Note the phrase, "The fool says in his heart …" The "fool" may outwardly proclaim quite loudly allegiance to God. But if he acts in such a way that it shows utter disregard to others, his outward confession of faith belies what is in his heart.
Of course, by interpreting Psalm 14 in this way I do not deny that there is a long Western tradition about atheists not being morally upright—a tradition that several morally upright atheists of the past few centuries have tried to dispel.
The other day, I listened to this free online course by Hubert Dreyfus, which included several lectures on Moby Dick. Though intriguing and worthwhile, I wondered whether he did not overstate his case, not only by his strong emphasis on the supposed evils of everything “mono,” but by casting Ahab almost entirely as a villain.
While listening to Dreyfus, I kept thinking of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s critique during and after WWII of the Western tradition and asked myself whether Dreyfus did not anachronistically impose similar ideas on Melville. Adorno and Horkheimer were Germans of Jewish descent who had to emigrate to the United States due to the rise of Nazism, and they thought that the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were not so much an interruption of the Enlightenment, but a natural outgrowth of Western scientific and Enlightenment thought. Western science and Reason, they maintained, were inherently totalitarian because they tried to subdue the whole of existence, first theoretically by unified theories, and second through the application of technology. Hence, totalitarianism was only the political manifestation of an essentially totalitarian thought pattern. In fact, they thought that our modern Capitalist countries were also infected by totalitarian thinking, although in more subtle forms.
Could it be that Adorno, Horkheimer and related philosophers like Marcuse rubbed off on Dreyfus, who now applies this critique of totalitarian thought to religion and then attempts to see the whole thing already laid out in Melville?
I am not saying that Dreyfus is completely wrong in his analysis, just over the top. As a balance to Dreyfus, I listened to several lectures on Moby Dick as part of a course on American literature by The Teaching Company. The lecturer, Arnold Weinstein, has what I would say is a more balanced approach to Melville, Ahab, and Moby Dick. Weinstein is not diametrically opposed to Dreyfus, but he puts the book in a slightly different context. Here are some things that I learned from his lectures.
First of all, we need to realize that the idea of whaling had very different emotional associations for Melville than it has for us. After the rise of environmentalism and the Animal Rights movement in the 20th century, and after the numerous human-made disasters we have inflicted on the other species on this planet, whaling has now, from the outset, a negative connotation. Not so for Melville. For Melville, whaling was the most powerful example of a great pursuit, and, so argues Weinstein, “greatness” is the main theme of the book. Both the object of the pursuit is great, as well as the pursuer, Ahab. Yes, as Dreyfus keeps pointing out, he is monomaniacal (considered an actual mental illness at the time Melville wrote the book, and a quite popular psychiatric concept), but also great. Without a considerable dose of admiration for Ahab, Melville would have hardly put the grand Shakespearian soliloquies in his mouth that he did.
In the 19th century, whaling was not an occupation for villains but heroes. Professor Weinstein talks about how it was a thriving enterprise then. “When we remember that petroleum was not discovered until 1859,” says he, “we realize the importance of whale oil. In 1844, $120 million was tied up in whaling. Whaling was especially significant in the American economy in the middle of the 19th century, when the industry was competing with textiles. Whaling finally became America-dominated, and considerable national pride is evident in Melville’s depictions.”
Weinstein goes on to say that Melville’s emphasis on indigenous American achievements is central to his project of fashioning an American epic. “National pride is sounded again and again, in Melville’s poetry of democracy, his homage to the great American promise. He contrasts American democracy with the hierarchy of Europe.”
So, according to Weinstein, Melville was not so much an enemy of monotheism and a champion of what Dreyfus calls “polytheism,” but a democrat. Could it be that he supported the diversity of religion because he was foremost an American who took great pride in the liberty of his country as against the—at that point still not completely democratic—old world?
Be that as it may, at the center of the story stands (or rather swims) the Whale, both one of man’s greatest challenges to conquer and a creature of legend, connected with many old tales. He is Melville’s “candidate for grandeur,” the great object for his new epic, written for a new country.
Such a great sphinx of the sea needs a worthy opponent, and we find him in Ahab, “a tragic, indigenous American hero.” Melville borrowed from the Old Testament and Shakespeare to construct a “modern Prometheus who is at war with the gods,” a new Faust who insists on “striking through the mask.” Ahab’s obsession and despotism thus become a symbol for the whole human enterprise, “and Melville charts its heights and depths in unforgettable ways. The most haunting note in this symphony is the vacating of self, the loss that inheres in such monstrous inflation.”
Ahab, pure villain or tragic hero? I think I go with the tragic hero interpretation, albeit one whose downfall is of his own monomaniacal making.
Following some of my recent posts on the imperfection of this world and the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the Fall, I had an exchange with a Catholic about these issues. Now I noticed that he approached the Bible primarily through the (no doubt often helpful) lens of later thinkers. In contrast, I was trained to look at the Bible purely from within a biblical framework. This was especially stressed in the Protestant university where I completed a degree in Biblical Studies.
Hence, I had read the Apostle Paul literally hundreds of times before I read a single chapter by Augustine or Aquinas, and I learned to ask over and over again: What were the authors of the Bible trying to say in their own historical context and cultural framework? How did they understand their own words? Not: What did Augustine or Aquinas make of it later?
And though I’m much more critical of my Protestant background now and much more familiar with Catholic thought, I still think that Augustine’s synthesis of neo-Platonism with Christianity and Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotelianism with Christianity have blurred the picture of what Paul and other authors of the Bible thought about creation, the Fall, perfection, and the reason why Jesus had to come. Augustine’s and Aquinas’ syntheses have been enormously fruitful, but it is one thing to discuss those things within the framework of such syntheses and another thing entirely to discuss them within a purely biblical framework. As someone who grew up breathing the Bible and very little but the Bible, I naturally framed the questions in a completely non-Platonic and non-Aristotelian way.
So, any discussion of these matters first has to settle the question: What is the framework in which we want to discuss them? Do we try to think through the implications of what we (in our fallibility) take to be the view of the biblical authors? Or do we discuss them within a synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem?
In my last post, I mentioned that I was raised as a Creationist with a strong preference for Young-Earth Creationism, but that I have since come to support the generally accepted age of the earth and life on earth. Thus I no longer take the account in Genesis as a scientific account of the earth’s history.
However, it was not my intent to depreciate the Genesis account as an incredibly rich story that can be used to illustrate a lot of points about our human condition. Even to a great humanist like Erich Fromm the biblical story of the Fall was essential for his thinking—not as a literal historical occurrence, but as a mythical picture. Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a powerful picture of the fact that we are creatures who are conscious of themselves, and because of this self-consciousness we are no longer entirely in harmony with nature. We are still part of nature, but we now feel naked and ashamed; we now can foresee our own death and yearn for a better world that seems to have been lost. We have been expelled from the Garden of Innocence and now have to toil under the sun, building our civilizations that, it seems, are always doomed to fail because we have lost our harmony with the world.
All of this and much more can be seen in the Genesis account. The idea that humans are made in the image of God is another compelling concept. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has repeatedly remarked, you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the thought it tries to convey (see his Glauben und Wissen [“Faith and Knowledge”], for instance). And it’s doubtful that Kant would have developed his concept of the dignity of man without it. If every human being is seen as the image of God, then I can never treat that person merely as a means to an end but always as an end in itself, with the utmost reverence. Human interaction hence gains a sacredness, a sense of standing in a holy place. You take off your shoes even in front of the lowliest of slaves, because there, before you, stands the image of God.
I could go on and on. Genesis as well as other books in the Bible can be wonderfully inspiring and have nourished some of the greatest thinkers in history.
For me, myth is not a bad word. In fact, I think myth often has the power to express timeless truths much better than concrete historical events. That is the case of pagan myths as well as of biblical ones.