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."

2018/12/18

Census when Quirinius was governor of Syria

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria.


Those are familiar and well loved words opening the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke. They are associated with the joy of Christmas but behind these words is hidden a major and violent upheaval. What seems like an innocuous dating remark about a census was actually a bitter grievance which triggered a decades long guerilla war. It was started and led by Judas the Galilean and his resistance movement was called the Zealots.
    How could a census lead to a guerrilla war? Because an ancient census was not primarily about better governance but about collecting taxes. In fact one of the most unjust forms of taxes - per capita tax (a head tax). Some time ago I explained it to the children in our Sunday School with pieces of pasta.
It is a per capita tax, everyone pays the same. A rich person pays ten pieces from his several boxes of pasta, and a poor person also pays ten pieces from his one handful of pasta. Both payed exactly the same. It looks just, but the rich guy has plenty left, while the poor lost a third of his dinner! 
     These are the tricks which some politicians play with taxes. It looks like a just arrangement, it looks like a good deal. All pay the same or, for instance, all receive a tax cut - but in fact it is utterly unjust and unfair. Judas the Galilean quite rightfully protested calling this tax “not better than slavery and a means to take away the nation’s liberty.” And because of this census and taxation injustice he started a seventy years long guerilla war against the Romans and their unjust ways.
    And this is something you might not know about the Christmas Story. 

In worship this Fourth Advent Sunday we will search for hope in the midst of such injustice and bureaucratic abuse of power and we will look for it from the perspective of pregnant Mary traveling to Bethlehem in her third trimester. 

 

2018/12/07

Contra-Cultural Advent

Medieval illuminated hymnal
with a Czech version of Rorate song
(Or why to sing rorate rather than carols in Advent)

Advent is a precious, beautiful and meaningful period of preparation for Christmas. In its true form it is a time of contemplation and self-examination and thus very important for our  psychological and spiritual health. A genuine Advent is sine qua non for truly joyful celebration of Christmas. How can we truly rejoice in Christmas if we are celebrating it from the beginning of Advent? In every store, supermarket and shopping-mall we are bombarded ad nauseam with Christmas music from as early as Thanksgiving. In fact it is an emotional ploy to manipulate us into compulsive shopping. And our culture went along it. Some families are putting up Christmas trees already before the first Sunday of Advent! And even in many churches one could hear carol tunes deep into the Advent season. But Advent is not watered-down version of Christmas! Our ancestors of faith knew better. In Advent they used to get up early before daybreak and went to church to sing Rorate Plainsong and say their Advent pensive prayers. The true joy of Christmas is unthinkable without self-reflection and preparation of Advent, just like the Easter is not the same without Lent. Replacing reflective Advent with a stretched-out and diluted prelude to Christmas does not make Christmas better, in fact it preempts Christmas and steals away its true joy. At Rutgers we strive to resist the dictate of shallow ideology of consumerism and live our faith contra-culturally.

Rorate Founding Biblical verse is Isaiah 45:8
RORATE caeli desuper
et nubes pluant iustum
aperiatur terra
et germinet salvatorem
et iustitia oriatur simul
ego Dominus creavi eum.


Open up, O heavens,
and pour out righteousness.
Let the earth open wide
so salvation can sprout up
together with righteousness.
I, the LORD, created it.

2018/12/06

Prophetic reenactors

The Advent season brings to us the story of John walking through deserts and baptizing in the Jordan river. Interestingly, John was not the only one doing something like that at that time. During the time of Cuspius Fadus as the procurator of Judea there was a prophet Theudas who took people to the desert promising them that he would divide the waters of the Jordan River and bring them back to the Promised Land. But Fadus sent a heavy cavalry and stopped them before they even tried.
    When Porcius Festus governed Judea, there was the so called “Egyptian prophet.” A man who allegedly came from Egypt, gathered a substantial number of people, took them for a round trip through the wilderness and brought them up to Jerusalem with a promise that he would make the walls fall down like Joshua did at Jericho. Festus sent troops and scattered them off.
    Jewish historian Josephus Flavius also has a summary report of more charlatans, imposters or deceivers (as he calls them), who misleading many people, made them act like madmen and go to the desert with promises of deliverance and social, economic and political changes.
    There are clearly some common repeating features: taking people to the desert/wilderness, crossing rivers, toppling walls. In fact, they were repeating old religious archetypes by reenacting Exodus and the Taking of the Promise Land while each had some special feature or emphasis.
    Among the biblical scholars there is little doubt that John the Baptist belonged to this group of reenactors. John’s special feature was the “washing” in the Jordan river and then sending the baptized one by one to infiltrate, retake and repopulate the land. Thus, in a more peaceful way start all over again a just and peaceful society as God would have it. John the Baptist was indeed this prophetic reenactor of liberation. And that is something not all might know about him.
    Join us this Sunday in worship as we ask what would John the Baptist do today? Would he still be by that muddy creak dividing Israel and Jordan baptizing the American fundamentalist tourists on that “exact” spot as he did those thousands years ago? Or would he be leading and supporting people through the Sonora and our other southern deserts? Or would he be helping people to cross the Rio Grande, Colorado River and its canals?

 

2018/11/29

Protect Uncontacted Tribes!

In the entire world there are only several dozens of so called uncontacted peoples. Those are tribes or communities who are living their lives in almost complete isolation especially without contact with the outside modern civilization. Recently one of these tribes made it into the world news, when they forcefully defended their independence (unfortunately killing the willfully ignorant intruder).  
    These peoples are survival experts. Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 killed a quarter of a million people all around them yet they survived without any major problems. On the other hand they are vulnerable to the dangers coming to them from the outside human world in the form of prospectors, hunters, pillagers and unfortunately also Christian missionaries.
    Governments and anthropologists have very good reasons for protecting these uncontacted peoples. For instance, in their oral culture all the knowledge is being memorized and passed from generation to generation. If elders, carrying that information, die prematurely, almost an entire treasure of knowledge can be lost. If the chain of oral transmission is compromised, for instance if a concept of writing is introduced carelessly - substantial parts of the accumulated knowledge can be also lost forever.
    This is just one anthropological reason for protecting these peoples. There are other political, medical, linguistic but also biblical and theological reasons why they should be left alone as long as they want. And even after some of them express their desire to establish contacts, they should be further protected from abuse.
    It is well established that it is our obligation and in our own interest to keep and protect the beauty and diversity of nature, the life on our planet. That should certainly include in it the beauty and diversity of human languages, experiences and cultures. 
The Bay of Bengal with the North Sentinel Island indicated by an arrow.
A small speck (roughly of the size of two Manhattans) next to the much larger Andaman Islands.

2018/11/20

Thanksgivings

The Hebrew Bible orders, in a way, the celebration of three thanksgiving feasts each year. Well, these celebrations are not called Thanksgivings but that was their original nature and purpose.
    In the Hebrew Bible there are these three oldest and most important holidays. Pesach (Passover) was in remembrance of the exodus from Egypt and the liberation from slavery. Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost in Greek) was in remembrance of the Gift of Torah on Sinai and the celebration of the divine Law and directions for the religious as well as social life. And Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles) was to remind the people of the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land and the care and protection of the pilgrims and refugees.
    But among the Biblical scholars and Anthropologists there is an overwhelming consensus and almost no doubt that these theological explanations are only secondary. These three oldest Hebrew holidays had in fact deep agrarian roots. Passover was originally a pastoral celebration of lambing and preparation for a transmigration from winter to summer pastures. Shavuot/Pentecost was a celebration of cereal harvest and Sukkoth/Tabernacles was a celebration of vine/grape and olive harvest.
    Yearly agricultural celebrations were married with pivotal events of faith. In this union they were mutually strengthened, given purpose and a deeper meaning. Thus the Biblical Thanksgivings (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles) not only give thanks, they want us to remember and be inspired with the message of liberty, justice, and mutual care. Join us this Sunday to celebrate thanksgiving(s) in this spirit.




2018/11/15

Samaritan Neighbours

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, almost at the very end of the film, in the crucifixion scene, is this strange and memorable exchange:

It is not as crazy as it might seem, it is actually quite historically and religiously accurate, like so many other parts of this comedy.
    Samaritans and Jews did hate each other. Their prejudice was mutual and deeply rooted, and just like any other deeply seated prejudice it indeed went beyond the grave.   
    I cannot go into any details of this complicated and convoluted history, but it can be helpful to observe that just like so many other sworn enemies, Samaritans and Jews shared a lot of commonalities. They had almost identical ethic roots, religious roots and they even shared the same, almost identical, holy books. Yet, they considered each other as heretics, apostates, and bastards (impure, mixed, inferior race).
    Their hostility flared up repeatedly into violence. Samaritans sided with mortal enemies of the Jews and Jews payed them back by destroying Samaritan holy temples as soon as they could (just a few generations before Jesus - around 110 BCE).
    Both groups were minuscule players on the world scene, but they kept denouncing each other to the superpowers of their times: to Persians, Alexander the Great, the Seleucid Syrian kings, to the Romans, to Byzantines...
    They are the prime example of ancient sworn intolerance, prejudice, bigotry and racism.
And as such, they can help us to deal with intolerance, prejudice, bigotry and racism in our own times. On Tuesday of this week the FBI published an official 2018 report on hate crime in our American society. There has been a spike in US hate crimes for the third year in a row. No surprise there, all hate crime increased substantially in the last three years, but religious and racial crimes increased by dozens of percent.
    This Sunday we will look for inspiration and support to Jesus, how he dealt with Jewish Samaritan entrenched religious, ethnic and racial bigotry. We need his divine inspiration, encouragement and support. 

2018/10/24

Luther and the Devil

Reformation Sunday is coming up.
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, ein gute Wehr und Waffen.
Will be sung again in many churches. 
A mighty fortress is our God a bulwark never failing.
It is “a battle hymn” of Lutheran reformation.
    It is thick with references of fight against the powers of Evil, the Ancient Foe, a grim Prince of Darkness, the world filled with and under the control of the Devil. From Luther’s own sermons, table talks and letters we know these were not mere metaphors reserved for his earthly enemies. Luther believed in the physical existence of the Devil and furthermore, he underwent a number of hallucinatory episodes when he saw or experienced the presence and certainly talked or rather had shouting matches with the Devil. With a gusto Luther also blamed the Devil (rather than his German diet) for his own chronic constipation and kidney stones.
    History textbooks, and Sunday School lessons are mostly quiet about it because when Luther spoke about the Devil, his normally colorful language became outright obscene (coprolalic). But from the uncensored Martin Luther we know that he not only hallucinated the Devil, but also engaged with the Devil in shouting matches full of obscenities. From his own words and from testimony of his close friends we also know that at several occasions in his life Luther was throwing at the hallucinated Devil not only scatologic words, but the very smelly stuff itself.
And that is something you might not know about Martin Luther.

Luther might had been a father of Reformation ushering in the modern times and sensitivities but his own world-view and his personal religiosity were permeated with the contemporary vulgar German culture and infused with the late-medieval superstitions and prejudice. We must not hide this truth.
     Luther remains an important theologian and reformer and at the same time a conflicted, highly troubled, deeply prejudiced and vulgar medieval German hick. How is it possible? How does it go together? It remains a historical mystery and Luther himself would probably refer to a miracle of divine grace.
    Come this Sunday as we combine themes of Reformation and Halloween and observe Luther in his relationship to witches. Luther’s deeply troubling superstitions can help us fend off prejudices in our society and culture.

"Birth and Origins of Pope" - a woodcut by Lucas Cranach.
Made according to Luther's instructions.
The Devil gives anal birth to the pope and clergy, who are nursed and cared by some demonic figures.