About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2015/01/21

No laughing matter!

Here is a joke from a long ago:
    A man was reported to have said in a pub: “Milos is an incompetent imbecile!” At the police station he attempted to defend himself: “No, comrade officer, I did not mean our respected party chairman, but some other Milos!”
“Just don’t try this on me! Did you say ‘incompetent imbecile’? You certainly meant our party leader!”
(MiloŇ° JakeŇ° was the last totalitarian Communist Party Leader in my homeland and known for dull mind and strange guffs.)
    I know that this joke has been around for quite a while and was told about a number of different politicians and with slightly different insinuations, but it so nicely captures the reality of totalitarian regimes.
    I grew up under the totalitarian regime of Eastern Block Communism. Humor, satire, jokes, parody, irreverence... these were our best tools to preserve sanity under the absurd and often brutal ideological regime. And the regime perceived even the smallest jokes as acts of ideological sabotage and suppressed them accordingly, that meant with violence. People literally went to prisons for sharing jokes. My aunt’s academic and professional life was seriously jeopardized because of an alleged college prank with political overtones.
    Humor is an important, vital tool of a healthy personal and societal life. I know that there are irreverent, offensive, off-color and utterly distasteful jokes. Yet, if there are any institutions, realities or persons who are a priori off the limits for humor or jokes, I insist, it is an indication of a major problem. And this applies also to the realm of religion. Humor, satire, jokes and general irreverence are vital tools of a healthy faith.
    A religion which takes itself too seriously so that it cannot stand humor has a serious problem. The Bible itself is full of puns, jokes and satire! If anything becomes beyond criticism or satire than we know we are dealing with an arrogant idolatry! I find the maxim of Gideon’s father Joash very appealing. It would go something like this: If this or that deity was so grievously offended and hurt (by irreverent acts), let that deity punish the perpetrator, not the deity’s followers! And you can indeed find this radical principle in the Bible (Judges 6:31).
    In year 1511 Erasmus of Rotterdam published his satirical essay The Praise of Folly. This preeminent scholar of renaissance humanism adopted for himself the well-defined role of court jester to poke fun at superstitious, dim-witted medieval Christianity. Erasmus in the form of personified Folly took the pulpit and made a hilarious and simultaneously serious presentation. Here is just a short paragraph of Folly’s peroration:
    And I was recently present myself (as I often am - {mind you Folly is speaking O.S.}) at a theological debate where someone asked what authority there was in Scriptures for ordering heretics to be burned instead of refuted in argument. A grim old man, whose self-importance made it clear he was a theologian, answered in some irritation that the apostle Paul had laid down this rule saying “A man who is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject [devita]”,and he went on thundering out this quotation again and again while most of those present wondered what had happened to him. At last he explained that the heretic was to be removed from life [de vita]. Some laughed, though there were plenty of others who found this explanation worthy of a true theologian. When several still expressed some objections, he declared with irrefutable authority: “Pay attention. It is written that thou shalt not let the evildoer live. Every heretic is an evildoer, therefore, etc.” The entire audience marveled at the man’s reasoning power ...
    Actually, it is not funny that it remains funny even five hundred years later. I certainly met such “theologians” who were using similar syllogistic arguments. Some aggressors still use religion to justify their blood-thirst, and our politicians, not that long ago, referred to evildoers with similar grizzly intentions, don't you remember GWB? You see, humour is serious stuff and no laughing matter! ;-)


Why have I appeared today in this unaccustomed garb? Well, you shall hear the reason if you have no objection to lending me your ears - no, not the ones you use for preachers of sermons, but the ears you usually prick up for mountebanks, clowns, and fools, the sort of ears that once upon a time our friend Midas listened with to Pan.

2015/01/07

Matthew interrogated

In the darkest corner of the Rutgers Exegetical Archive Library (REAL), residing in the pulpit pedestal, we recently made another interesting discovery which seems to be a yet unknown fragment of the first American Biblical Detective Story. Although the exact original meaning and context of this fragment remains uncertain, and although its genre does not fit any known ancient forms, we would tentatively include it, at least for now, with other documents of Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers.
(Some earlier discoveries of  Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers were reported here, here, here, here and here)

“Matthew, did you really need to kill all those innocent babies in Bethlehem?”
 “But I did not do it! Herod did.” 
“Just don’t try this on me, Matthew! We both know very well that you had made up that whole story about the visiting Magi and about the escape to Egypt. It starts as sublime, inspiring fiction, but then it turns ugly - so much blood and weeping! Was it really necessary to have all those babies murdered?” 
“What else should I do? I could use only few lines of text to set a stage and to show my readers how violent was the world into which Jesus was born. Herod was a natural choice. He was a nasty character, as you certainly know, a paranoid power-possessed tyrant able to kill his own sons. Would you know any better contemporary villain?” 
“I am with you on Herod, but my issue is with your treatment of those babies. As an author of that story, you could save them in just few words, with a stroke of pen! You wrote in an angel to warn and save Jesus. Would it be that difficult to write in few more angels to stop the soldiers or at least to warn other parents in Bethlehem?” 
“Just think about it! If I had introduced even a few more angels to stop those cutthroats, it would immediately made my story into a feeble-minded fable. Would you, yourself, believe it? Have you ever seen a host of angels flying in to intercept crooks?” 
“I see your point. It would be quite unrealistic!” 
“I am telling you, my story, as legendary as it is, is unfortunately like the weekly news. The story is not the problem, our world is! There are clearly too few angels!” 
“But why? Shall we go and search for some?” 

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone (1266 - 1337)

2014/12/30

More golden than gold

What is more precious than gold? And what gold sparkles more than gold?
    Last Monday a small group from our church went for a bible class field trip to the Metropolitan Museum. We visited the soon-ending exhibition “From Assyria to Iberia.” It offered us great insight into the Near Eastern and Mediterranean Iron Age, an important period for understanding the Hebrew Bible.
    We saw and discussed the famous Tel Dan Stele and we observed several centuries of development of writing. We were impressed by imposing Assyrian bas-relieves and we admired marvelous Phoenician ivories and bronzes. But many of us were particularly captivated by a special kind of ancient gold jewelry.
Pendant with granulation from the
permanent exposition of the MtMu
    Several jewels in the exhibition sparkled and glittered as if made from some brighter gold. On closer inspection we could see that these jewels were covered with minuscule golden grains, the tiniest little balls you can imagine, often smaller than a fracture of a millimeter.
    Classical optics informs us, that a surface covered by granules is visually shinier than regular polished metal. A plate of metal reflects light almost entirely in one direction (similar to that of a mirror); while a high number of small beads behaves very differently: a spherical surface reflects light in many directions and this effect is cumulatively maximized when many balls are set side by side. This phenomenon is called diffused reflection.
    Jewelry granulation provides an almost uniform dispersion of light; thus it gives the impression that a surface covered with granulation is shinier than a regular polished surface.
A drawing of diffused reflection of parallel light beams.
    This highly sophisticated jewelry technique appeared in the middle bronze age Mesopotamia and slowly spread around the ancient world. Golden granulation was one of the highly prestigious (and also tightly guarded) technologies which were kept among artisans working in royal workshops. Nevertheless this technique continued spreading by the way of social and political phenomenon of gift giving.
    Friendly or neutral kings competed and ranked each other by exchanging gifts of high technological finesse. The better and more valuable the gift secured to the giver the higher level of prestige. And alliances between higher and lower monarchs were sealed with transfers of these prestigious technologies and exchanges of artisans.
    This is something for us to think about this Sunday as we mark the Epiphany. The epiphany story of Magi is most likely legendary and non-historical. But even as a legend it grows from a rich soil of the Ancient Near East tradition of political gift giving and the artisan and scholar visits.
    Come this Sunday to search for an answer to the question: what is brighter and more precious than even granulated gold?

2014/12/26

Healing Leaves

Do you have the Tree of Life at home? That one with magical fruit and healing leaves? Many people do on Christmas, only they don’t know it. These are in fact the deepest mythical origins of our tradition of decorated Christmas trees!
     Actually the Reformation and the early Protestants were responsible for this custom. Some scattered evidence of the Christmas trees predates the Reformation, yet the strongest impulse for the widespread and strong popularity of Christmas trees came from the protestant regions around the Rhine River in the 16th century. They decorated Christmas trees and sang about it in a beautiful Christmas Carol.


Lo, how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
By faithful prophets sung.
It came a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
    Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
    The rose I have in mind, 
    With Mary we behold it,
    The virgin mother kind.
    To show God’s love aright
    She bore for us a Savior,
    When half spent was the night.

 

Perhaps unrecognizably, this old hymn reflects the origins of the Christmas trees. Behind the hymn’s lyrics is a famous biblical prophecy from the book Isaiah (11:1):
    A branch shall grow from the stump of Jesse,
    and a shoot from this root shall bear fruit.

And Isaiah on his part is masterfully recasting an ancient mythic image of paradisal tree of life. A tree or trees which bear fruits twelve times a year and its leaves have healing powers as we hear about them from Ezechiel 47:12 or Revelation 22:1ff. Clearly ancient Middle Eastern prophecies did not envision any pine trees (our Christmas standard), but what could the reformation Germans do? In their home, pine trees were the only green trees at this season so they hang on it apples and later oranges or chocolate treats (now glass balls and other decorations) to stand for fruits and pretended that pine needles were those healing leaves. Before all this, ancient mythical imagery got almost completely forgotten and only unreflected customs remain.
      Come this Sunday to search for other trees of life and different faith traditions with trees of magical healing leaves.

 


2014/12/18

Medieval (Russian) Christmas

This year as our Advent and Christmas art I picked an orthodox medieval icon painted sometimes around 1405 by a famous Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is an excellent example of early Christian didactical iconography.
     In the center is a newborn Jesus in a cave with Mary reclining on a royal divan and looking away. Theological reference brings in an ox and a donkey from Isaiah 1 thus highlighting presence, wisdom and devotion of animals. Theological consideration also makes the trough to look like a casket and swaddling cloths to resemble a shroud thus already foreshadowing another cave story of the Easter message. Cosmic significance is highlighted by a star’s long ray which points to baby Jesus. Nearby grows a tree or bush - a royal stump of Jesse which is springing out (Isaiah 11).
     All four corners also have their traditional content and meaning. Lower corners are inspired by non-biblical early Christian legends - left lower corner is occupied by Joseph who is tempted by a devil, visualizing our constant human inner dialogue with doubt and unbelief. The right lower corner depicts two midwives (Zebel and Salome) preparing a bath for baby Jesus, thus underlying true bodily incarnation which included a baby bath. The upper corners are reserved for canonical gospels: Matthew’s corner has arriving magi while Luke’s corner shows angelic choirs bringing good tidings to shepherds. The countryside on the background is intentionally barren in order to highlight our human state, a life in an inhospitable world after we lost the verdant Paradise.
     Isn’t it interesting how little has changed over the centuries? These icons are like a window into our human perception of Christmas: oddly arranged theology and legends, naivete and sincere spiritual reflections. This one old masterpiece is just like that, it is loaded with meanings and theological lessons cobbled together, and yet it remains light, delicate, almost ethereal and certainly spiritually mesmerizing. Enjoy!


P.S. And of course, Orthodox Christmas are celebrated  according to Julian calendar ;-)

2014/12/11

Psychiatrist's kid

I grew up on a psychiatric ward. My father is a psychiatrist and my mom was a psychiatric nurse. One of my earliest slivers of memory has me sitting under an elevated examination bed in my father’s office and banging all around with a neurological hammer. Later in my school years, I regularly passed through the waiting room. I still remember the diverse, sometime bizarre and always copious selection of characters seeking help in my father’s office. Alcohol and substance addicts, a depressed teacher, a manic storekeeper, a schizoid long-haired savior, parents with an autistic son, children with a disoriented grandma in early stages of dementia ...
    It hurts me greatly, especially with the beginning of winter, when I see a similar assortment of people around NYC streets staying homeless or almost homeless. Why is it that so many mentally ill people in our society end up on the streets (or even worse - in jails)? I know they can be treated more humanely and with respect.
   
Summer art festival at Psychiatric Sanatorium in Prague Bohnice.
with St.Wenceslas church.
When I was a minister in Prague, in the same district with my church there was one of the largest Psychiatric Sanatoriums in the country. It was founded in 1909 under the Habsburg Monarchy! It had a large chapel (in fact a sizable church, really) in the middle of the campus. A small clergy group took turns in leading worship. This hospital had not only an ecumenical church, it also had greenhouses and a horse farm for work therapy, a theater and several art studios, an symphonic orchestra and a jazz band and a calendar of concerts and events... Only two pavilions, to my best knowledge, out of about fifty (on its 160 acres campus) were so-called closed (to keep and protect the patients); all other pavilions were open and patients stayed voluntarily.
    When it starts to snow or it is freezing cold and I splash through NYC's slush passing by another disoriented or delusional homeless soul, it hurts me so much because I know there are better alternatives. If the Habsburg monarchy, a full century ago, was able to care for its mentally ill citizens, why isn’t our technologically and medically advanced society? It is important to talk about it, it is important to demand from our government a better, more humane, more enlightened approach to mental illness (at least on the level of 1909!). And very practically it is important for us at Rutgers to continue supporting and to celebrate WSFSSH (West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing). In our community it substitutes for and fills in the gaps of our negligent and inadequate government.
    This Sunday we will talk about and pray for social refugees and exiles- people pushed away from their homes because of their mental illness or difficult and complex family circumstances.

2014/12/05

R-Rated Patriarchs

The Bible is a surprisingly earthy book. It is full of unheroic heroes with important lessons to teach. It presents life in its raw and un-adorned nature. In this very essence, the Bible resists being made into some simple-to-follow set of rules and doctrines. And this un-tamed nature is the Bible’s greatest value. Take for instance such shocking behaviour as biblical patriarchs pimping their wives. I know many would object to the use of this verb, but that is exactly what we are told they were doing - presenting their spouses as their sisters and offering them to potentates for personal benefit. Just check Genesis 12, Genesis 20 and Genesis 26!  
Semitic people present in Egypt:
Semitic goddess Qadesh on lion
flanked by Semitic god Resheph
and Egyptian god Min, patron of fertility.   
   
      Threefold recidivism especially unsettled many pious souls as well as theologians and interpreters. Many tried to rationalize these surprising stories. Fundamentalists, unable to defend patriarchal actions, attempted to exonerate them at least from lying - their wives were indeed their blood relatives! Religionists (students of religions) might point out that these stories are some kind of myths reworked into patriarchal legends. As represented on number of Egyptian stelae. Folklorists attempted to reduce the count of stories by seeing them all coming from one original oral tradition. Dogmatists highlighted moral lessons: learning to trust God, and the dangerous short-sightedness of human schemes. Anthropologists suspected some ancient practice of sharing wives with strangers, (well documented in other cultures.) Feminists saw it as a literary device highlighting the stellar beauty of the vulnerable matriarchs while denouncing the callous values of patriarchal system. To a different degree all these observations offer important and relevant insights.
       For me these stories reflect the deepest visceral fears of many refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups in our society. In a foreign culture, in a foreign land, confronted with strange customs, an exposed minority, unprotected and vulnerable, ... in such a situation even deep seated taboos can collapse. Our own Biblical patriarchs help us to understand these dangerous dynamics of alienation and fear. Our own Biblical patriarchs show us why it is important to protect all the vulnerable strangers above and beyond the protection which is enjoyed by the natives. The Bible is surprisingly earthy, practical and radical book. This Sunday we will pray for economic refugees.
       Our guest this Sunday - Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly and Human Rights Activist will share with us his first hand experiences around and on both sides of the US-Mexican border.