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."

2015/04/09

Apotropaic Seal of Love

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    passion as fierce as the netherworld.

One more Sunday (at least for a while ;-) we will listen to the exquisite Hebrew love poetry of the Song of Songs. As I went looking for some nice examples of cylinder seals to illustrate the first two lines of this poem, I came across this one from a recent exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum.
On the left side is a small semiprecious cylinder stone (smaller than an inch) with a delicate  ancient engraving and on the right side is its modern impression in fine clay. Ancient people wore these seals on strings around their necks or wrists. They used them in place of a signature. Archeologists found hundreds and thousands of these all over the Ancient Near East.
    This particular one is from Assyrian Babylonia and is quite interesting. It is engraved with a scene showing a hero fighting with a lion over a calf. One is immediately reminded for instance of the Herculean Labors or, from our Biblical tradition, Samson or David fighting with lions. You see, no religion is an island! (To paraphrase old saying). Current religions would not be here without their ancient roots and no violence against ancient artifacts (which we now observe in the Islamic State) is going to change it. (And don’t be mistaken - it is not only about Islamic fanatics; violent religious nuts among Christians and Jews had and retain similar iconoclastic tendencies of suppressing inconvenient history!) 
    There is one more interesting feature in this seal which makes it a marvelous illustration for our text from the Song of Songs. Some time after the seal was made, a cuneiform inscription was written on it. The text reads “Belonging to Mabu-nadin-shumi, son of Ashur, may god Nabu grant him life!” This seal clearly had double function - it was also an amulet. This Sunday we will rejoice in this apotropaic (evil-averting), protective, function of the seal of love.

2015/03/31

As Strong as Death

This Lent and Easter we have been reading the Song of Songs - a marvelous book of biblical love poetry. In its last chapter we read: “Love is as strong as death and the love’s passion is as fierce as the netherworld.”
    Unfortunately, many biblical commentators feel an urge to write something like: “please note, that ‘love is as strong as death, but it is not stronger!’” They are clearly under some evil spell of fossilized Judeo-Christian dogma (only God or Jesus are allowed to be stronger than death). They show their elemental prejudiced misunderstanding.
    Firstly, we know that love in the Song of Songs, just as any true love, is a force inseparable from divine love. And secondly, within the Ancient Near Eastern linguistic as well as mythological context “Love being as strong as death” points clearly in the direction of courage and hope in ultimate victory of love or forces of love. *)
    There is also a rhetorical reason why love is "only" as strong as death. Love is as strong as death - to keep the dramatic suspension open. Love is as strong as death - to encourage us to take sides. Love is as strong as death - so that we support and root for love. Love is as strong as death - to pull us in this life embracing story, to invite us to love and thus participate in this ultimate struggle and victory of love.
    We all know to hope in the auspicious final outcome, but nothing is certain until the last moment. Come this Easter Sunday to rejoice in it. Indeed, love is as strong as death....

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*) For example here is a short quotation from the Ugaritic myth about the fight of Baal (divine patron of fertility/prosperity) with Mot (Semitic god of death). KTU 1.6.vi.16-22  and 33-35
 
They glowered at each other like burning coals.

Mot was strong,
Baal was strong. 
They gored (each other) like wild bulls.

Mot was strong,
Baal was strong.
They bit (each other) like snakes.

Mot was strong,
Baal was strong. 
They tugged (each other) like hunting dogs.

Mot fell.
Ball fell on top of him

at this moment goddess of sun, Shapash, intervenes and finally: 
Mot lifted up his voice and cried:
Let Baal be installed on the throne of his kingship,
on the seat in control of his dominion.    

2015/03/26

NYC Pilgrimage

Shortly after we moved to NYC we made a pilgrimage to visit my childhood idol.
    One rainy Saturday in early spring we took the subway to Time Square. In just two short blocks to the New York Public Library, what could possibly go wrong? On the first corner, both of our umbrellas were torn to pieces. We were indeed NYC’s newlings and never heard about Manhattan grade umbrellas. Thankfully the library's side entrance was open. Soon I was standing face to face with my idol. I finally met with Winnie the Pooh and most of his other friends and relations. It is true, I was dripping wet, and my idol looked also somehow worn out, beaten up and shabby. But outer appearances truly do not matter, not even in the slightest, when you make a pilgrimage.
    I still remember my father reading to me and my sister at bed times all those enchanting stories from 100 Aker Wood, and of course, later myself, reading those stories to my sons. I vividly remember one evening almost catching Wizzle and two Woozles and another time discussing the merits of expotitions to the East and West Poles (after North and South have been already discovered).
    For me, it was a meaningful and moving, almost eye-misty, pilgrimage while my practical wife Martina went to buy a new NYPL Lion umbrella in the library store. (Manhattan grade - we still have it.) On our way to pick up our coats at the side exit, I noticed the library marble stairs being worn off, in places almost by an inch. Just imagine hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of feet walking up to this temple of knowledge, making their pilgrimage, eager to read, to learn, to discover, or for sentimental reasons as I did. Indeed, there are many different pilgrimages. This Palm Sunday we will remember and talk about pilgrimages, religious and spiritual, personal and collective. As we continue reading from the Song of Songs we will especially talk about pilgrimages of love.

The Christopher Robin Moment of my son when he was about three on the morning after we moved to our first manse.

2015/03/20

Fragrant Medicine

How do you recognize a presence of a demon?
By stench, of course! -  Ancient people were quite clear about it.
They had good reasons for this informed guess, bad smell and decay go hand in hand.
While, on the other hand, a clean fresh fragrant breeze heralds well being and health.
And that was also their way of dealing with bad smelling demons. They fended them off with incense and perfumes. Most exotic and potent fragrances and perfumes were reserved to protect the most vulnerable aspects of life - religion and love. This Sunday we will hear from the Song of Songs the secrets of the Biblical fragrant potion of love.
 

  We will also celebrate a great theological and social achievement of our Presbyterian denomination. On Tuesday evening a majority of presbyteries approved the new definition of marriage which now includes the same gender couples. At Rutgers we have been celebrating same gender weddings since our state approved it (in prophetic defiance of the official Presbyterian interpretation) and we have also advocated for this change broadly and loudly in several General Assemblies. Now it becomes reality and we rejoice that the fresh fragrance of openness and caring love is repelling the stench of fundamentalist grudge and prejudice. Come to celebrate this power of fragrant love!

2015/03/12

Reformed Lent

It is probably not that well known here in US, but the Swiss Reformation (of which Presbyterians are an integral part) started on March 9th, 1522 when Huldrich Zwingli, Leo Jud and some other radicals from Zurich gathered and publicly defied the Roman Catholic Lent observances by cutting a “wurst” into slices and distributing them and eating them as mocked hosts. Soon after this public event Zwingli delivered a sermon called “Regarding the Choice and the Freedom of Foods”, which he published shortly afterwards on April 16, 1522.
    Thus this old defiance of Lent is to the Reform Tradition (including Presbyterians) what opposition to indulgences and the 95 Theses are for Lutherans. Lent, in its full pre-reformation form, was a ploy of the totalitarian medieval Church to spiritually and mentally control the subjugated populations, and in this form was rightly resented and rejected by reformers.
    Calvin and other reformers were not as radical as Zwingli in dismissing Lent and fasting, yet still followed in their reservations towards these outer observances. They were well backed by the powerful prophetic message, for instance from Isaiah 58.

   You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance,
   bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind.
   You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes.
   Is this what you call fasting?
   Do you really think this will impress the LORD?
   "No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
      Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
      lighten the burden of those who work for you.
      Let the oppressed go free,
      and remove the chains that bind people.
      Share your food with the hungry,
      and give shelter to the homeless.
      Give clothes to those who need them,
      and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

 Not any outer shows, not any magical thinking, but inner transformation of the heart and especially true acts of justice and love are those things which truly matter! And they matter not only in any particular season of Lent, but always!
    When we ignore the true prophetic call, when we do not know or do not want to know the divine radical message of justice and peace, when we do not hear and perceive the true purpose for our lives, we human beings tend to revert to religious rituals and magical thinking. Deep inside we know we are easy sailing through our lives while time is slipping in between our fingers - and thus we fill the true emptiness  with little cute rituals and cyclical observances and annual liturgical busyness so that we feel less empty, less miserable in missing our true call. But the call is still there.
   
This Sunday we will continue reading the beautiful yet also challenging book of Song of Songs. This time we will talk not only about deep love, but also about the mishaps of love, and challenges and dangers it encounters, how it resists, survives and prevails in encounters with morality police - encounters with different and diverse demons of prejudice and narrow-mindedness.

2015/03/05

Ancient Solar Eclipse


What is this? This is a computer recreated sky above the city of Ugarit (35° 36'N and 35° 47'E) exactly 3,237 years ago. In the early afternoon (11:20 UTC) on March 5th in year 1223 BCE a total solar eclipse took place and was recorded in a form of a short note on a clay tablet. That text (KTU 1:78) reads in translation: At six o’clock of the first day of (the month) Ḫiyaru, Sun disappeared. The doorman was Rešef. Haruspicium was performed. Be warned!
 
     Hours were measured from sunrise to sunset and thus the "sixth hour" would correspond to early afternoon. Month Ḫiyaru was their 7th month from their New Year which was celebrated around the Autumn equinox - thus Ḫiyaru was roughly equivalent to the end of February and beginning of March. And indeed there was a solar eclipse over the northern Syria on March 5th, 1223 BCE in the early afternoon hours and the planet Mars (associated with god of war Rešef) was only 3.5 degree distant from the eclipsed Sun. Thus we also know that the eclipse was total - otherwise Mars would not be visible. This level of accuracy, exact observation location, and knowledge of totality, enabled astronomers to fine-tune rotational and orbit parameters of the Moon and Earth three thousand years back.
 

     Haruspicium (divination from entrails of sacrificial animal) was standard divination procedure for important decision making. Both eclipse in close conjunction with Mars and haruspicium gave substantial reason for caution. In a few decades (around year 1185 BCE) the city was sacked, abandoned and turned to heap of ruins until it was rediscovered in 1928-9.
 

      Join us for the last two Lenten Lectures On March 11 and 18 to learn about Ugarit Mythology and Religion.

2015/02/28

The Radical Love Songs for Lent and Easter

This Lent and Easter season at Rutgers we are reading the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon or The Canticles. It is beautiful, sometimes sublime, sometimes almost racy erotic poetry. (If you have never heard of it and are interested, the Song of Songs can be found in Christian Bibles close to the center of the volume, after Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes and before Isaiah and Jeremiah.)
    Of course the Song of Songs is not a normal Lent and Easter biblical reading for Christian churches. Traditional conservative Jews and Christians have always had a problem with this book. It was one of the last books to be included in the Hebrew Bible and it happened only after extensive rabbinical discussion. The Ancient Synagogue and Early Church accepted this beautiful book only after they “desexed” it by twisting it with a forceful allegorical interpretation where the groom became God (or Christ for the Christians) and the bride was supposed to represent the people of Israel (or the Church).
    In reaction to this emasculating allegorical interpretation, modern theology went all the way in the opposite direction. Modern approach of the twentieth century used an uninhibited fleshy reading and re-asserted and lifted up its erotic and at times XXX rated content. Most recent scholarship influenced by feminist as well as LGBT theology attempts to balance these older approaches and reach beyond them for some beautiful and powerful insights enriching our love, life and faith.
    In this postmodern interpretation, the Song of Songs presents us with a fresh worldview as seen by Ancient Near Eastern love. This world view might be old but it is also surprisingly timeless - the love perceives world in a gender inclusive and balanced manner as both lovers are given almost equal prominence. This love's worldview is also color (or race) blind or even better, actively attracted by the different and the other. Considering its intimate genre it also draws a surprisingly broad geographic circle. The love's worldview also has an intense interest in nature, in flowers, trees and animals both domestic and wild. Ancient love was clearly informed and interested in what we would now call the environment and ecology and the anti-consumerism movement. Ancient love was also realistic, it was exposed to prejudice, bullying, persecution, violence and abuse by the rich and powerful, and it protested and found the strength and means to fight back and to survive or come back.
    Thus the Song of Songs is beautiful erotic love poetry but also deals with race, gender, geography, environment, and abuse and prejudice from the perspective of the biocentric worldview of love, offering deep insights, transformation and encouragement. That is why we are reading these radical love songs during this Lent and Easter.