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."


Fragrant prayers

What is the essence of worship? Why does worship matter? How does it "work"?
This Sunday I would like to present you with an ancient, yet instructive metaphor of incense burning. It is an old religious practice shared by diverse religious traditions all around the world. It nicely visualizes, perhaps we should even say sensualizes, and explains the act of worship.
    A ribbon of smoke rises from a burned stick of incense. At that moment it is clearly localized in time and space, visually connecting the below and the above. Soon it disappears from the naked eye, yet it becomes even more potent. In this dispersed form it infuses and permeates the surrounding space. It is exactly in this invisible form that it is most effective and powerful. The fragrance fills the air; it fights out unpleasant odors and repels irritating insects. Subliminally (through our most archaic and least understood sense of smell) it endows worship time and space with a characteristic feeling and special fragrance. Recent research has even found in some incense smoke certain aromatic compounds with possible mild neuro-active properties which might help people to relax, concentrate and start to understand.
    In our Jewish and Christian tradition (in the Old as well as New Testaments) incense is particularly associated with an act of prayer. And as I said, the burning of incense is for me primarily a metaphor. Incense is not magic, it does not “work” automatically (ex opere operato - by doing it). It helps us to visualize and imagine an act of worship in its broader ramifications. First it is localized in time and space. At that moment it is usually discernible, but soon it disappears from sight but permeates the broader space, before it completely dissipates and blows out, gently asking us to repeat the act or ritual. Worship and prayer are just like that, they impacts the worshiper or worshiping community, but they also have much broader effect metaphorically, intangibly, mysteriously infusing and transforming the entire social atmosphere.
    Come this Sunday to experience and discern and be inspired by this ancient worship practice.


Pregnancy Gospel of Luke

Have you been kicked by your child? I was lucky to have that experience quite early on (and 25 years ago). Even for fathers it, is one of those life changing, almost mystical moments. I still remember when it happened to me. One day evening after school, we were still university students, Martina grabbed my hand and placed my palm on her rounded belly. She wore gray and blue tartan dress. “Now!” She said, with bright sparks in her eyes. And I could feel a gentle nudge under my palm. Soon it became more vigorous. In a few weeks she could hardly sleep; at times, we were joking George would be a great soccer striker (thankfully he did not turn that way). With Jakob I even developed a little game. I would tap with my fingers Martina’s arching navel, and he would kick back, I would drum gently, and he would kick back, and again and perhaps one more time. Well, that was about how long Martina would let us play. (When I think about it, he appreciates this kind of little game until today.)
    These are those very special, intimate and mysterious moment of every parent. At the same time it is also one of those realities which constitute the delicate archetypal substance of any true religion. In the Near Eastern bronze age pre-biblical myths and legends fathers counted lunar months of pregnancy, five and five, first five (most likely to the quickening) and second five to birth (KTU 1.17.ii.43-46; KTU 1.23.57) They also deeply revered goddesses of childbearing called Kotharot. This is their three thousand year old hymn:
    I will sing of the goddesses, the Kotharoth
    Daughters of Ellil, the Bright Ones
    Daughters of Ellil, the lord of Crescent,
    they descend to the nut-groves,
    and among the olive-gardens.
    Lo, in my mouth is their number,
    on my lips is their count:
    Wedding-Gift  and Dowry,
    Flame-of-Love and Womb-Opener,
    First-Cry and Perpetually-Fruitful,
    finally, Benefactress - the youngest of the Kotharoth.
        (KTU 1.24.40-50)
Kotharot epithetic (characterizing) names are not unlike similar names of two famous and similarly respected Jewish midwives from  Exodus 1.
This Sunday is the last one in Advent. The evangelist Luke will introduce and highlight this intimate, mysterious life fostering Motherly Religion into the formative moment of our Christian faith. Come to celebrate life with Elizabeth and Mary and hear their “Pregnancy Gospel of Luke”.

(By the way, among the evangelists, Luke is the cultivated Hellenistic person, he has a keen eye for medical observation and detail, and also he has the least patriarchal worldview - his female characters are numerous and developed with insight and understanding.)

Terracotta figurines of pregnant and nursing women (goddesses?) from Iron Age Palestine. 


Advent under attack

The Communist regime under which I grew up in Central Europe, had a very interesting effect on the celebration of Christian holidays. In a paradoxical manner it preserved their more traditional, pristine character. The regime was proudly atheistic so there was no public commercially tainted December-long bombardment with Christmas sentiments. Proper Christian Christmas hymns and carols were not used and commercially abused to their very limits by every supermarket or mall. Thus in churches and Christian homes we could keep true Christian traditions, observing the season of Advent without Christmas decorations. Those would come in on Christmas Eve. The Christmas Eve pageant was prepared for Christmas Eve afternoon. First Christmas carols and hymns were sung at the Christmas Eve service. It kept the Christmas spirit for Christmas and we could observe true Advent, sing meaningful Advent hymns and concentrate on Advent themes. Traditionally Advent is a season of preparation, fasting and spiritual exploration, asking what truly matters in our life and in the world, how can we prepare for the prince of peace, what are the rules governing his kingdom.
Respecting this Advent Season our church musicians have prepared for us very special music for this Sunday afternoon’s concert, The Magnificat in D major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is exuberant music, short and succinct, brimming with anticipation and joy, and also loaded with Advent meaning.

Here is the text of Mary’s hymn in modern translation. Just think about it in the context of our pre-Christmas commercial madness. It is full of anticipation and simple joy, but you cannot miss the strong social justice themes.
    Mary said: My soul glorifies you my LORD,
    and my spirit rejoices in you, my God and Savior.
    You took notice of me, your lowly servant girl.
    Indeed from now on, all generations will called me blessed,
    for you have done great things for me,
    your name is holy indeed!
    From generation to generation
    you extend mercy to your faithful folk.
You do tremendous things by your power.
    Dispersing the arrogant with all their tricks.
Bringing down the rulers from their lofty thrones.
    Lifting up the outcasts in their place.
Feeding the hungry with all good things.
    Kicking the rich out with empty bags.
Coming to the help of your servant people.
    Remembering your promise of mercy-love.
Those promises you made to our ancestors of old.
    To Abraham and Sarah and all their children of every time and space.

Sometimes I think that celebration of Advent and Christmas under Secular Communism was somehow easier than it is under Capitalist Consumerism. The atheism was like a clear bullying antagonist, consumerism behaves more like a false friend, luring us quietly and deceptively away. We need to be so much thoughtful and intentional! Thankfully we have the biblical message and magnificent music to help us on our way. 

Cultural Identity (Modern NYC case study)

Two weeks ago, the oldest member of Rutgers Church, Ruth Munson, passed away at the aged of 103 years. In her personal Bible from which she read regularly, Ruth kept a prayer: 
    Give me a pure heart – that I may see thee,
    A humble heart – that I may hear thee,
    A heart of love – that I may serve thee,
    A heart of faith – that I may abide in thee.

When deacon William Bailey made a living history recording with Ruth in 2007, (she was 98 then) she did not remember anything about the origin or authorship of this prayer. She probably liked its somehow archaic language, and kept it as an expression of a deep piety. But it is much more than just that.
    These four lines are an excerpt from a spiritual diary of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations. The book with this prayer was published only after his tragic and untimely death. He was killed during a peace mission in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in September 1961. The only Secretary General who died while fulfilling his office. His death was officially declared a tragic accident, but this explanation was always questioned and more and more people think that he was eliminated because he took the UN peacemaking mission way too seriously and strove for strong and proud self-governance of African nations. Secretary Hammarskjöld worked for peace, while Belgian, British, American and South African governments knew about mineral and especially uranium deposits underground. (The stage was set for a western client and egomaniac Mobutu Sese Seko)
    Ruth did not remember the origin of the prayer. She probably did not know details of this sinister history, hardly knew about Belgium Congo, Patrice Lubumba, Katanga rebellion or the interests of western mining corporations and secret services. But the presence of the Hammarskjöld prayer in her Bible is not just a coincidence. Someone in her circle had to be reading his spiritual diary, most likely someone from her church. It was clearly part of her environment, part of her cultural identity which she shared with her church. She did not know details, but they still reflected their shared or similar values and sentiments.
    I am not at all surprised she kept a part of the Dag Hammarskjöld prayer in her Bible. In the same interview with Bill Bailey, she talked about how she left her Brooklyn church and did not attend church for many years, because, as she once expressed it to me, church was tolerating and even justifying and thus perpetuating injustice. She returned to church only much later, on the wave of the civil right’s movement, and she returned to a church which took seriously the integrity of faith and its connection with peace and justice. She was called for jury duty and could not imagine sitting in a judgement, without reaching to the source of divine justice for orientation and support. Ruth did not remember and might had never known the origin of the prayer, but she shared the same positive, peace and justice-seeking idealism.

Ruth at the age of 95.
In September 2013, news agencies report (for instance this article in The Guardian) calls for reopening of the case of this untimely death of the second Secretary General of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld and ever stronger evidence of involvement of western spy agencies in his murder (if anyone ever doubted).


Watered Down Prophet

This Sunday we will try to listen and take seriously the radical message of John the Baptist. I believe it is an important message for us, just as it was an important message for Jesus himself and his early followers. But unlike Jesus and his followers, we have a problem.
    John the Baptist did not speak to us directly. He did not deliver his message in our language. (Our oldest records of his preaching are already translations, to Hellenistic Koine, the old popular Greek.) He delivered his message almost 2,000 years ago. He addressed it to a very different society from our own (it was a pre-industrial rural Mediterranean society) and he addressed it to a completely different audience, predominantly to expropriated, and exploited peasants from Judea.
    Thankfully we are not the only ones or the first ones with this problem. The Evangelist Luke had this problem long before now. Luke undertook an uneasy task to translate the charismatic eschatological Judean prophet for an urban Hellenistic audience. It was an courageous endeavor instigated and inspired by Luke’s conviction of the great and universal importance of that message.
    We must take Luke’s endeavor seriously. He highlighted the social justice dimension of John’s message. But by re-directing the message to a different audience, Luke also unavoidably changed the message and unfortunately watered down the radical eschatological edge of John’s prophetic message.
    This Sunday we will take seriously Luke’s Johannine Catechism (the social justice oriented question and answer from Luke 3:10-14) and learn from its message. But we also need to take seriously the  inherent problems and shortcomings of Luke's translation strategy. Unfortunately, for centuries and almost exclusively, social teaching of many churches stopped at this watered down and tamed cultural translation of prophetic preaching. We must recognize this reality and get deeper, farther and beyond it. 

     We need to humbly accept, that we are not the original audience. We need to unlearn this "self-centered" middle-class appropriation of the prophetic message, which takes this message away from the original audience and their heirs. We need to re-contextualize the prophet and accept with the full seriousness that the primary audience were and remain people on the margins, the neglected, the abandoned, the disinherited of his time and of our time! We owe it to John the Baptist and to the divine spirit who inspired him.


From Advent to Blossom

Have you heard about setting up an Advent branch, or as it is more often called twigs of St. Barbara? It is a nice and interesting Advent custom from Central Europe. Der Barbarazweig - Barbara’s twig is considered a folk Roman Catholic custom, but its roots are definitely pre-Christian and might go back to ancient Celts or Germans.
    The custom is simple and lovely. A twig of cherry or any other early blooming bush or tree is cut on (or around) December 4th, the St. Barbara holiday. It is taken home and there it is forced (this is an ugly English technical term for accelerating growth, other languages use nicer allusions). With a bit of care and some luck, Barbara’s twig will bloom nicely ad profusely on Christmas Day. Just imagine how it must felt centuries ago, before any commercial florists and imported cut flowers! It must have been spectacular.
    Strangely, I like this custom in our urban megacity setting even better. I like this idea of taking care of a barren twig in a vase and caring it into bloom. It is a new, different, hopeful, and nature-oriented spiritual discipline for Advent. When it is successful, cherry blossoms bring a sign of bright new life to the middle of the bleak and dark city winter. We (especially we Calvinist Protestants) divorced our religion and faith from nature. This old Advent custom marvelously reconnects faith, religion, spirituality, world and nature in a hopeful and harmonious manner.
    The lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke is leading us in a similar direction. This Sunday we will hear another part of what is being called the Synoptical apocalypse. It speaks about natural, political, military and cosmic disasters and catastrophes of the end of time. Fundamentalists just love this stuff, they like to frighten people into obedience. But not so Jesus! Towards the end, this long darksome discourse takes a surprising turn. We hear a parable of the Barbarazweig, or more precisely its Near Eastern equivalent, a budding reminder of promised hope. Come this Sunday to celebrate new hopeful eco-justice eschatology; join us in celebrating Environmental Advent.
P.S. A few instructions for your own Barbarazweig if you would like to try it. For any hope of success you need about 3 weeks of outside temperatures below 40 degrees. In NYC you might need to wait longer than St. Barbara’s holiday on December 4 to get this level of cold weather (What a nice reminder of the harmful effect of global warming, even blooming trees need a cold winter!). Ask a permission from an orchard keeper, get from your florist, cut in your garden, a thin branch with at least 10 buds (cherry, forsythia, plum or pear tree). Use a sharp knife, not scissors! And use slant cut. At home, repeat the cut if it stayed out and the cut dried. Submerge the branch for an hour or so in cold water (ad a few cubes of ice if it is NYC apartment water). Put it in a vase and take it to a coldest bright room (wintergarden) for a week or so replacing or adding water as needed. After it starts truly budding, bring it to your living room. It can all be done in the living room, but it is not ideal. A dash of flower fertilizer or a dissolved baby aspirin in the vase water can also help. Success is likely but not guaranteed (which is also nice part of this spiritual discipline, try it again next year.)

P.P.S. A divine judgement (a divination practice - Ordal) by blooming of the Aaron's rod as narrated in Numeri 17 is quite an interesting phenomenological parallel.  


Incarnation mystery

Some time ago a fundamentalist “inquisitor” tried to test my orthodoxy and interrogated me about the divinity of Christ (ministers occasionally receive these kinds of strange telephone calls. You might have had similar experiences with your more conservative relatives, friends, or coworkers.) Holy innocence, I wondered, they are truly hopeless, what a pudding-head question! Not the divinity but the humanity of Christ constitutes the greatest theological mystery. Anselm of Canterbury (1034 – 1109) marveled: Cur Deus Homo - Why God (became) Human? I am not particularly fond of his motives and conclusions, but his question outlines the true mystery of incarnation. The Gospel of Matthew (1:22f) approached this mystery by referring to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himselfe will giue you a signe. Beholde, the virgine shall conceiue and beare a sonne, and she shall call his name Immanu-el. (I quote in the delightful Renaissance English of the Geneva Study Bible.)

Immanu-el, Immanuel or Emmanuel means “God with us”. But who was the original “God-with-us” of the Isaiah prophecy? No one really knows. The Prophecy was most likely directed to Jerusalem’s King Ahaz. The sign was to be the conception and birth of a royal baby to a young noblewoman (this is the exact meaning of this word (g'almah/t) in old Semitic languages, not a virgin but a young noblewoman). Who was this young noblewoman and who was this baby boy? She was probably one of the king’s wives and the boy was his son; some point to Ahaz’ son and successor king Hezekiah, but it is not certain; only a few names of queens and very few names of their children survived. Their original identities remain a mystery. But we can know other things with greater certainty. Isaiah himself had already quoted and combined several older religious formulas. The pre-biblical myth from Ugarit (KTU 1.24.8) used the identical childbearing phrase of hope: “a noblewoman will bear a son...” Biblical legendary stories record a similar hope-inspiring name-giving angelic prophetic instructions: “You will have a son and will call his name....” (Gen 16:11). All these ancient archetypal references point towards a powerful message of hope in the birth of a child. Why would the birth of a mythical baby, a royal baby, Mary’s baby, or any baby, mean that God is with us? It remains a central mystery of incarnate divine love.
    Indeed, not the divinity of Christ, but the humanity of God has been one of the deepest mysteries of divine love. How and why is God coming in the form of babies? How does it transform our view of the world? Why is God bringing help and hope by becoming one of/with us? What does it mean, that God is human? What does it mean for our ethics, for our personal, social and political behavior? But even further, why is the creator becoming creation? What does it mean to eliminate this important conceptual distinction? What does it mean for our relationship towards creation, other creatures, and the natural world? Isn’t it possible that by asking these questions our perspectives and our lives are already being transformed and hope is being born and reborn?


Divine embroidery

Would you ever think about threading a sewing needle “with a camel? What a silly idea? What a strange image? Why even bother thinking about it?
    Well, because Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25) I count this pronouncement among few other “Ipsisisma verba Iesu” (The very words of Jesus). The Early church tradition would hardly created such an outlandish statement and assign it to Jesus. This saying originated with Jesus and became a proverbial expression of impossibility. And from the earliest times people were perplexed and challenged by this idea and were coming with different and diverse theories and solutions about how to explain and rationalize and normalize this statement (often with inferior motives to justify and exonerate the rich). But this statement is not rational; it is a marvelous poetic hyperbole. And similar to any other poetry it is loaded with deep meaning. It follows different, non-rational, poetic, intuitive logic. This Sunday we will be challenged and encouraged by this outlandish poetical message. 

    Now, a tangential thought. This hyperbolic saying is interesting for its other feature which is hardly ever noticed. It is about sewing. In traditional pre-industrial societies sewing was a domestic activity of women. For the world which was highly structured and divided by gender roles, this is truly surprising. Jesus paid curious and empathic attention to the world of women. For instance the Talmud does it also, but here, with Jesus, it is different! A female domestic world is lifted up or the Kingdom of God is lowered down to match each other. Our saying couples closely the Kingdom of God with sewing needles. And an other parable does it with housewife making bread, another time the Kingdom of God is being compared to sweeping and housecleaning, just imagine! This is not just a coincidence, this is an interesting repeating pattern.
    Jesus compares the great theme of the rule of God with household chores. Firstly it questions and undermines stiff gender roles and divisions in the society. Secondly it brings forward revolutionary new theology. It presents new ways of talking and thinking about God. It introduces a new and different kind of divinity, not with a sword but with a needle, not with a spear but a broom, not destroying and torching the disobedient, but kneading and baking bread for the hungry. Indeed, with God everything is possible, if only people paid attention!

Bronze sewing needle from Hellenistic period.
The Social justice theme of care for the less fortunate comes out clearly when we consider other, non-biblical, parallel of this story as quoted by Early Christian Theologian Origen (185-254 C.E.) from the Gospel of Nazoreans (Origen calls it the Gospel of the Hebrews)

It is written in a certain gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews - if anyone will accept it, not as authoritative, but to shed light on the question at hand:
“The second rich man said to him, ‘Teacher, what good do I have to do to live?’
He said to him, ‘Sir, follow the Law and the Prophets.’
He answered, ‘I’ve done that.’
He said to him, ‘Then go sell everything you own and give it away to the poor and then come follow me.’
But the rich man didn’t want to hear this and began to scratch his head. And the Lord said to him, ‘How can you say that you follow the Law and the Prophets? In the Law it says: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Now, look around: many of your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Abraham, are living in filth and dying of hunger. Your house is full of good things and not a thing of yours manages to get out to them.” Turning to his disciple Simon, who was sitting with him, he said, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, it is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into heaven’s domain.’


Sin boldly!

    “Sin boldly” Wrote Martin Luther to his friend and theological colleague Philip Melanchton at the beginning of reformation. The very fact that this statement remains provocative is a testament that this reformation and its spiritual liberation are still ongoing and greatly needed.
    “Sin boldly” Martin Luther wrote and he was subverting the very essence of the false medieval religious system. The medieval church skillfully used feelings of shame and guilt in combination with the religious category of sin, to trap, manipulate, enslave and exploit people on a massive scale (entire continents). This truly totalitarian system surrounded individuals from birth to death, at home and at work, in private and in public. It permeated huts of serfs but also (to a lesser extend) castles of nobility, prescribing what to feel, what to think, what was allowed and what was not.
    “Sin boldly” wrote Martin Luther although he was born to and largely remained a son of this medieval superstitious world. Early in his life he took this neurotic religious world-view seriously and tried to comply. He employed all his German sincerity and thoroughness, but to no avail; he could not measure up. In fact, no one could; that was exactly how this whole spiritual system of enslavement was intentionally built. Then something snapped in him. Luther, by that time a trained biblical scholar, realized the artificial nature of this system. He started to unmask it. Reformation, the process of spiritual liberation, had started.
    “Sin Boldly” Martin Luther wrote thus starting reformation. But it is an unfinished quest. Until this day this statement makes religious people uncomfortable! It is because across the religious spectrum, from conservative Evangelicals to the most Liberal social activists, religion was reduced into religiously-justified morality. It is so particularly in America with its knack for pragmatism even in matters of religion. Religious people of different stripes apply religious morality from different angles, with different agendas and with different goals. At the end, conservative as well as liberal moralists want to improve or correct either individual or collective behaviour.
    “Sin Boldly” wrote Martin Luther, because he wanted to liberate people from enslaving obsessive-compulsive religiosity. People are uncomfortable because they are still under the spell of the ritualistic, mercantile religion which Sigmund Freud so aptly described as an organized collective neurosis. This critique of religion is particularly suitable for any church which forgets about the true message of Jesus and his liberating power. God loves us, we do not deserve it in any way, it is a free gift of grace. Only if we are liberated, can we rejoice in divine grace.
    “Sin  boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!” There is a diametrical difference between guilt-ridden religion founded in fear and joyful faith rooted in divine grace. Come this Sunday to celebrate the ongoing Reformation, come to celebrate joyful faith.


Jesus in Nursery

I am convinced that we have to liberate Jesus, his apostles and our faith from centuries of stiff and stilted religiosity. That rigid, hyper-religious Jesus is unreal and unbelievable. Take for instance the end of the gospel reading for this Sunday (Mark 10:16). Standard hyper-religious biblical translations present something like this: And he took children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. What kind of sad religious characters could possibly perpetrate such translation? They probably never even notice babies not to mention cradle some in their arms. Or perhaps they did, but then, when it came to church, religion and faith, they divorced themselves from their gentler-selves and they committed this atrocious translation. Unfortunately by the same token such translating made Jesus look like strange religious monster devoid of normal human emotions just conducting some strange religious rituals. 
       How much better it is to respect the context and search for meaning rather than mechanically translating individual words. How much better it is to use also our senses and emotions. Then we can end up with a normal and believable account. Jesus took children in his arms, cuddled them and made them laugh. This is just one sentence liberated from the hypertrophic religiosity and what a difference it makes! Finally, we can see Jesus in all his tender, caring divine humanity. And it is not only easier and nicer to read, it is also a more accurate translation.

And here is a paragraph for those who are interested in linguistic (phonetic) evidence. The Greek word ευλογεω (EULOGEŌ) did  mean “to bless”. But every Greek person would hear in it “speaking kindly, positively, nicely”. In addition, the oldest manuscripts attached to this verb uniquely a causative prefix κατα (KATA). Thus only with a little bit of license we can translate “Jesus made them happy, made them laugh.” A similar situation is repeated with the word for “putting hands down upon” τιθημι/
τιθηναι (TITHĒMI/TITHĒNAI). There is a substantive homophone (same sounding word) and homograph (same written word) τιθηνη (TITHĒNĒ) meaning a nurse or a nanny. Although this word is from a different verbal root θαομαι (THAOMAI), in the given context of little babies the phonetic proximity of this word can hardly go unnoticed and unappreciated. That is the reason for our “cuddly” twist.

This Sunday morning I invite you to Rutgers Church to meet Jesus in the Divine Nursery.


Augury, Ornithology and (In/)Tolerant Monotheism

Is monotheism bound to be intolerant, insensitive and primitivistic?
This Sunday afternoon we filled our sanctuary with dogs and cats who came for the blessing of the animals. 

As a text for my short meditation I chose a verse from the book of Job,

    Who endowed the ibis with wisdom
    and gave the rooster his intelligence?
(Job 38:36)

It is just one parallelism of a beautiful creation hymn from the end of the book of Job 38+39. This whole hymn celebrates a complex balance within creation and a persistent intricate interconectedness between creation and creator. This verse represents a stark religious alternative to the later dogmatic and intolerant form of monotheistic religion which soon followed and overwhelmed and to a large extent took over first Judaism and later  Christianity and Islam.
    The Hellenistic author Josephus Flavius wrote in the second half of the 1st century CE an interesting Jewish apologetic (a defense tract) called Contra Apionem. In the first book Josephus quotes from the Greek historiographer Hecataeus a story about Mosollam:

"As I was myself going to the Red Sea, there was a man, whose name was Mosollam. He was one of the Jewish horsemen who accompanied us. He was a person of great courage, of a strong body, and by opinion of all the most skillful archer that was either among the Greeks or barbarians. As people were marching along the road in great numbers, a certain augur was observing an augury by a bird, and required all the people to stand still. Mosollam asked why they stopped. The augur showed him the bird from which he took his augury, and told him that if the bird stayed where it was, they should all stand still; but that if it got up, and flew onward, they must go forward; but that if it flew backward, they must return back. Mosollam did not say a word, but drew his bow, and shot at the bird, hit it, and killed it. The augur and some others became very angry, and cursed him. He answered them: Why are you so mad? And taking the bird he asked, How can this bird give us any true information about our march when it could not save itself? Had it been able to foreknow what was in the future, it would not have come to this place, but would have been afraid lest Mosollam the Jew should shoot at it and
kill it." 
(Contra Apionem1:201-204)

  • Josephus claims to quote from a work of Hecataeus (Hecateus of Abdera). But this claim is dubious. Hecataeus is a known ancient author, but this particular work did not survive, and was preserved only in Josephus’ quotations. There are also serious academic doubts about the veracity of Josephus’  quotation claim; some say Josephus quoted from Jewish-edited excerpts, others claim the story was from the works of Manetho. It is possible he quoted some kind of a falsum (fraud) written in the Jewish community of ancient Alexandria.

The source of this anecdote is uncertain and dubious, nevertheless it is quoted approvingly by our ancient author Josephus. What does it tell us about the author and his community?
    1) Militarism and military power is accepted with approval.
    2) Mercenary culture is a lived reality.
    3) Divination is rejected using a demagogic argument by violence.
    4) Subjectivity of animals is ridiculed, they are turned into objects.

Militarism and selling out to dominant powers nicely fits with what is know about Josephus, his life and his community. I want to concentrate on the last two points. The story mocks ancient Hellenistic superstitiousness. Unfortunately it achieves its goal by using intellectual and logical dishonesty with serious and lasting consequences.
    Augury was just one of the many branches of ancient divination practices, which interpreted uninitiated (unprovoked), naturally occurring events. Another examples were teratomancy (interpretation of birth deformities of animals as well as people), astrology (interpretation of not only celestial objects, but also climactical events like circles around the sun or the moon), or different biological events (a fox seen in the city, a line of ants observed in the temple etc). The relationship between the divine source of the message, messengers carrying the information, means of communication and intended recipients were often diverse, unclear and complex. The divine realm and natural realm were perceived as interconnected and inseparable. Divination involved interpretation of tightly interwoven patterns and coincidences. In augury, for instance, birds were not autonomous free-willed subjects and as such they were not the source of the message - the message became manifest in their behaviour.    Even in the most simplistic understanding of augury, birds were just messengers. In such a situation, killing the messenger does not disprove the message or this mode of communication. Just as killing all the roosters in a village would not postpone the next morning or disprove the connection between cockcrow and daybreak. The next morning will come silently and unannounced and soon there will be no eggs for breakfast even for the most zealous mechanical monotheist. Killing roosters does not prove anything except the violent narrow-mindedness of the killer. Similarly Josephus’ story achieves its goal by radical simplification and distortion of the context. It uses a common and efficient technique of demagogy, it creates a caricature of its target and then mocks it. The unfortunate yet unavoidable consequence of this monotheistic demagoguery was the distortion of religion, distortion of human self understanding and unfortunate breakdown of the the human relationship to nature. Religion became mechanistic and dissociated from nature, humans assumed titanic features alienated from the context of nature, and nature itself becomes objectified.
    Thankfully the ancient biblical tradition (and for instance the medieval Franciscan sensitivity to creatures) show us viable non-dogmatic alternative. Most recently, the post-modern development of natural sciences, social sciences, and theological discourse offer us hope for starting a long process of re-balancing our existence and our religion.


Call for justice and good governance

What is the role of a prophet?
Irrespective of common understanding, true prophets are not in the business of foretelling the future nor are they in the business of moralising or being overly spiritual or religious.

The primary role of a prophet is to speak the truth and call for justice, to do it especially to those in power and do it in season and especially out of season.  In this respect, modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber or Karl Marx got it in my opinion wrong when they theorized about origins of slavish morality, religion of the suppressed and postulated biblical religion as an spiritual/religious escape of downtrodden and underprivileged.

I believe that thought-provoking German egyptologist and anthropologist Jan Assmann got it right when he maintained that the biblical call for justice actually originated in the Ancient Near Eastern wisdom tradition. He is right to trace the call for justice to the ideal of a wise ruler. I myself can provide examples from the area of my intellectual interest - pre-biblical Ugaritic literature (in this case the epics of Keret and Aqhat). 

The prophetic (and generally Biblical) call for political and social justice, for protection of the vulnerable, poor and the weak, was not and is not a religiously cloaked whining from the "losers" of the world. From time immemorial, it has been a well established and age tested rule of good governance.

Exploitation of the poor and tax cuts for the rich is shortsighted and eventually self defeating. The growing social gap within the society and the neglect of the vulnerable in the end does not serve anyone--not even powerful and rich. Plutocracy combined with egotism and nepotism are like an aggressive corrosion, they have the potential to take down the whole societal structure including the rich and powerful.

Come this Sunday and hear a biblical prophet calling for justice and telling the truth to those in power! On this World communion Sunday catch glimpses and celebrate sparks of something different, something harmonious, something arriving, something of hope.

Cuneiform tablet of the Epos of Aqhat from Ugarit KTU 1.19.
Louvre Museum.


Don’t be afraid of deconstruction!

     It is a liberating philosophical insight and process. If we are in prison and in shackles, we yearn to be released. Deconstruction is a way which can help to take the spiritual prison of deceptions and illusions of language and ideology apart and set us free.
      Take for instance that famous, almost proverbial, Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic. It speaks about prisoners in the cave who see only shadows of real things. Philosophers, the enlightened minds, are the only ones who have the privilege of leaving the cave and seeing things as they truly are... But what if this entire allegory is just another kind of deceptive ideological prison? What if Plato, himself a philosopher, constructed this allegory to postulate for many generations to come the difference between the cave and true world of forms outside and to deny understanding to anybody but his own pals? This whole dialogue is, after all, proposing a society governed by philosophers. The whole Allegory of the Cave can be deconstructed as a self-promoting tool powered by flattery.
       In the early 18th century, Giovanni Battista Vico, the Italian philosopher and linguist noted a very radical thought: verum esse ipsum factum (The true itself is stated/made). He is considered the father of constructivist epistemology. According to this theory, we humans are the constructing authors of our culture, society, economy, justice system and science. The primary construct is our language, the very essence of our communication and the only tool of our own thinking.
       I think that Vico was right; everything in our understanding of the world is in the end our own human construct. Here comes the good news of deconstruction. Everything that has been constructed can be also deconstructed; there are no untouchable constructs. If there is a thing which pretends to be untouchable and absolute, if there is a construct which claims authority over the lives of others, if there is a thing which controls or enslaves, such a thing should be the primary target for deconstructive probing. Nothing human is untouchable or holy.
       And what about religion, rituals, theologies, prayers, grace, even God godself? Can they... Could they...  Should they ... also be deconstructed? Of course they can and they should be! Especially if they are constructed to abuse trust and authority, promote ignorance, perpetuate violence. Religions have this dark propensity to shield, cloak and justify some very ugly stuff. Throughout the biblical tradition we hear about this constant deconstruction of religious illusions and deceptions. If it is deconstructible, then it is not of true divine nature. And if it is not deconstructible, well, then we must shut up (to paraphrase the famous final proposition of Ludwig Wittgenstein.)
       This weekend with our guest John Caputo we will look at what and how many of our social and religious structures Jesus would de*construct, and hopefully we will also touch that space of awakened and hesitant silence.



Misunderstood love poetry

Imagine that tomorrow morning all the Shakespeare’s Sonnets suddenly disappeared: from your library, from a public library and every library. 
The volumes would still be standing on the shelves, even the print in regular neat paragraphs would still cover the pages, but this beautiful Elizabethan love poetry would be mysteriously gone, simply not there any more, because this exquisite literature would suddenly be used in a different, weird and peculiar way – the sonnets would be used for weather forecasts not only above the British Isles but also all over the world. Television, radio, and the internet would not be showing weather readings and satellite and radar images, but only William’s poetic prosody. Academic climatologists would be developing highly sophisticated methods to utilize patterns in Shakespearean verbal tenses for describing and predicting El Niño phenomenon.
Does it make any sense? Doesn't it sound crazy? It might, but something very similar happened to the Biblical Love Poetry. The Song of Songs had been and remained the regular and undisputed part of the Bible, but it was virtually invisible all the way through the end of 18th century. It was still read and diligently researched by generations of Christian as well as Jewish theologians. An endless series of inspirational sermons were delivered by some famous and eloquent preachers (Origen, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Reformers.) They claimed and argued to discover in Song of Songs hidden messages of divine theology, deep and ever deeper secrets of relationship between YHWH and Israel, or Christ and the Church. (Situation not unlike predicting weather from Shakespearean poetry!)
Only Enlightenment theology started to appreciate Song of Songs for what it truly was rather for what it was not. Two centuries later, the situation still remains fluid and not completely clear. Many people don’t even know that the Bible contains beautiful, intimate, even quite racy love poetry. Many other don’t know what to think of it. 
This Sunday I would like to invite you to participate in rediscovering biblical love poetry and its potential to transform and nurture our lives and our faith.


An interview with Satan Peter

Welcome to our weekly program - A moment for spiritual growth - I am your host Beth Childs in studio 7 of the Heavenly Broadcasting Corporation here on the corner of Broadway and 73rd Street.  
       This Program is brought to you today by The Genuine Scottish Oats - producing the PERFECT morning cereals for 452 years. One bowl of our celestial porridge in the morning makes you feel like a strong Presbyterian inside out and all day long.

Beth: Now, Today I have with me in the studio a very special guest - Simeon, the fisherman, also known in Aramaic as Cephas, in Greek as Peter and in English as Rocky, preeminent disciple of Jesus, in some traditions head of the church and first bishop of Rome.  St. Peter - welcome to our program.

Peter: Thank you for having me.

Beth: Without further ado I will start right away with the most intriguing question.  I always wanted to ask you - did Jesus really call you Satan?

Peter: Yes he did. Or do you think that I made it up?

Beth: I did not mean that you made it up.  What about the early church’s oral tradition?  What about the evangelists?  They write testimony about faith and not history.   Aren’t they proverbially unreliable?

Peter: Oh yes, they occasionally embellished and improved some stories. Sometimes they even made up stories of their own to make a point. But do you think that they would have made up such an unflattering story about me - one of the founding pillars of the church?

Beth: So it is a fact!  Jesus did call you Satan...  

Peter: I hope you understand that at that time, and in that context, the word “Satan” had not yet developed into a strong mythical, supra-natural character. That happened later. At our time in Galilee SATAN simply meant “a seducer”, “an adversary”. It was a name for a function, not for a demonic character. It wasn’t another name for the devil, It wasn’t another name for the alter ego of God - the ruler of the dark worlds. SATAN in Hebrew, SATANA in Aramaic, simply meant “the adversary”.

Beth: Well, that is not all that helpful, is it?  Satan or Seducer - how did you feel when your beloved master publicly called you seducer   or ... ADVERSARY?
How did I feel? Awful! Horrible! But let me backtrack a little – earlier that day I felt very hopeful, elated, almost exuberant. On the way to Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked us, his closest disciples, a question - "Who do people say that I am?" And we were in seventh heaven! Finally he got realistic! He started to pay attention to public opinion! (At least, so we thought.) Finally we could engage popular emotions and expectations! Finally we could tap into that powerful fountain of public anger and hopes! In no time, we could get a real and realistic big movement going.
    Until then, he was not real; he was losing so many potential supporters and powerful allies... At one moment, he was subverting Romans, the next time he healed a boyfriend of a Roman officer. One moment he criticized Pharisees, the next time he was at their table!
    He was asking about public opinion; that was to us a good sign! And then he even asked us "But who do you say that I am?" - I was so happy, finally we were talking real business, finally I had a chance to let him know how we can easily change our movement to make a real impact in this world, I almost exclaimed, I burst out - "You are the Messiah." And he?  He rebuked me!  He publicly humiliated me for confessing him to be the Messiah!

Beth: Wait a moment, wait a moment!  I thought that Jesus rebuked you only after you took him aside and started to talk him out of suffering? 

Peter: Oh no, it happened just like that, as I said. He rebuked me right away. What you have in the Bible is a later attempt to explain it step by step, by sequencing it, dividing it into several consecutive steps. In reality it happened all at once. I was full of hope and joy and expectation. I confessed him to be the victorious Messiah, and right away he rebuked me and called me Satan, just for calling him the Messiah!

Beth: Aren’t people confessing Jesus as Messiah all the time?  Does it mean that they (we?) are Satans? 

Peter: That is a very good question. It all depends on what you mean by Messiah, the kind of meaning you put into this word. That is one of the reasons this story was divided into those several stages.
    I called Jesus “Messiah” before the crucifixion and at that moment I wanted him to be a successful resistance leader who would change things by power from the top down. By ”Messiah” I meant the most successful and most powerful political figure, the avenger and victor.
    After the crucifixion, after his suffering - it all means something different. Suddenly when someone who was crucified is called Messiah, you do not worship worldly political success! When you declare someone who was crucified Messiah, you are raising your voice in protest against any and all inhumanity, against all humiliation of the powerless. Declaring someone who was crucified as the Messiah, points above and beyond, to something bigger and higher and more glorious.

Beth: Whew!  I am relieved. Since it is now after the crucifixion, we can call Jesus Messiah all the time...   

Peter: Not so fast, not so fast - again it very much depends on the context and your intentions. When you call Jesus the Messiah or Saviour in the midst of suffering, or when you feel pain for other people, when you care for them and want to help them, if it is your protest against injustice -- then it is OK. But when you call Jesus Messiah for political or personal agendas, if you call him Messiah to keep the oppression and injustice going, If you call him Messiah, to keep people in darkness, or to gain or retain your privileges or the easy life or anything else - oh, then it becomes truly very questionable.

Beth: Aren’t people doing it all the time? Does it really mean that, at least to some degree, we are all Satans, tempters, and misunderstanding and misleading adversaries of the LORD? 

Peter: I am afraid it really may be so, and that is also the reason I am happy that my unflattering story is preserved in the Bible. My reputation is less important than this important warning and spiritual lesson.
    But please note, that Jesus didn’t say, “Go away Satan!” He said to me, “Satan, get behind me!” It can be translated, “Satan, follow!” He used the exactly same words which he used when he called me the first time to be his disciple! I was strongly rebuked, but I was not expelled. Even as a Satan, I was re-invited to discipleship.

Beth: Do I hear you correctly saying that at different times and in different forms we all misunderstand, manipulate, even abuse Jesus’ legacy, that we all can be called SATANS  and yet he still calls us and urges us to follow him? 

Peter: Yes, that is correct, Even though we are at times misled and are misusing his legacy for our own agendas, he still invites us to follow him. Jesus invites absolutely everybody to follow him, because in him and in his Gospel there is hidden this enormous power for good, which can endure the biggest temptations, master most difficult people and change even our most selfish agendas.
    To use medieval church lingo - we are all sinners - and still we are all invited to follow him, and in that process many are transformed. Only in this way we are learning that, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus and his Gospel, will save it.”

Beth: Peter, who was once called Satan,...  

Peter: and would deserve it many times over...
Beth: Peter, who was once called Satan, thank you very much.

Does anyone in our distinguished audience want to ask Peter a question?
If not, I would like to invite you to our next program - next week we will be discussing the life and words of Somali poet Cilmi Boodheri and the surprising power of love poetry.
(Now) As our closing litany we will affirm together our faith:

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH (Adapted from The Confession of 1967)
God’s sovereign love is a mystery
beyond the reach of human mind.
Human thought ascribes to God
superlatives of power, wisdom, and goodness.
But God reveals divine love in Jesus Christ
by showing power in the form of a servant,
wisdom in the folly of the cross,
and goodness in receiving sinful people.
The power of God’s love in Christ
to transform the world discloses that
the Redeemer is the Lord and Creator
who made all things to serve
the purpose of God’s divine love.


Dangerous Religions

Religion is like a fire. Without fire we would not have civilization. On the other hand fire which gets out of control destroys and kills, often on large scale. Religions are just like that. They inspire the human spirit to create the most sublime masterpieces of art and to reach great heights of altruism and enlightenment. But religions can also get out of control. They can be abused for dangerous personal, national, or political agendas. If that happens, religions burn and destroy, imprison, enslave and kill with genocidal fanaticism. 
       Every religion has this latent propensity to become surprisingly destructive and violent. All religious texts, myths, legends, hymns and prophecies known to me are surprisingly violent. Even the Song of Songs, the biblical love poetry, speaks about “the army marching to battle under flags”, “shields of warriors” and “battlements of fortresses”. There are even a few instances when Jesus seems to advocate violence, and honestly, an image of harvest (cutting down of wheat) isn’t a particularly peaceful image of upcoming judgement either. Most often these texts are explained as metaphors, and interpreted as spiritual parables highlighting the urgency of peace and justice. Unfortunately, in no time they can be taken literally and instigate religious riots, exonerate atrocities, and perpetuate oppression.
       Every religion has this potential. Every religion can be used and abused by religious, political or national zealots for their own agendas. I might be mistaken, but I think that irrational religious fanaticism has been on the rise for last several decades (and not only in Islam). Some thoughtful and sensitive people react to this nasty side of religion by abandoning religion altogether - to me that is like pretending that we can have civilization without the use of fire. I believe that we can enjoy the benefits of religion but at the same time every person of true faith must recognize the inherent religious danger and seek ways to guard their faith against such aberrations. This Sunday in the lectionary Gospel reading (Mark 8:27-33) we will see how Jesus addressed this very issue in the closest circle of his disciples.


Return of a magician

This Sunday we celebrate Homecoming. So, after summer, Welcome back to Rutgers Church! 
       Many of us are returning from summer holidays and journeys, some short, some longer to distant lands. But even if you did not go for a long trip, or did not go away at all, all of us return changed and transformed by our summer experiences. 
       As we come together again, we bring with us pieces of different cultures, landscapes, environments which got under our skin and stuck in our mind. We carry with us grains of dreams and different sights which we take home in our subconsciousness just like that little pile of forgotten sand in the bottom of a suitcase. Hopefully we also bring along (and will preserve at least for some time) that light summerly easy attitude of playfulness and readiness to try out new things. And yes, I must not forget one of the most important elements, we bring also along the thorns of hardships which we encountered on our summer journeys. But with memories of hardships we also bring news skills and creative ways which we learned to cope and overcome them. 
       Indeed, exposure to different environments, other cultures and foreign languages have a profound influence on sensitive and receptive minds. This Sunday in our Bible reading (Mark 7:31-37) we will observe how Jesus returned from a foreign trip. Some (evangelicals) say he went on a mission trip, others (progressives) respond that most likely he was escaping political and religious persecution, he was a refugee. Anyhow, after returning home he performed a very unusual miracle healing. It was so controversial that it is preserved only in the oldest gospel - Mark. Other evangelists left it out. In this miracle story it seems that Jesus is behaving like a common pagan magician. I think that the Jesus of this story exemplifies for us how journeys can open our minds and bring healing and justice in new and surprising ways. It is a great and auspicious story for our homecoming and new school year.

Mark 7:31-37 translated as it would be heard by the original recipients (Dynamic Equivalent Translation). 
Colloquial and clumsy language represents similar features of the original Greek text.
Jesus returned from the region of Tyre to the sea of Galilee by a long detour thought Sidon and the region of Decapolis. (Like going from Staten Island to Princeton through Bronx and Peterson.)
Just then some people came bringing to him a deaf-and-dumb guy, and they are like asking him to put on him his healing hands.
And he just took him away from that crowd, so they could be alone.
Then he stuck his fingers into his ears, and he spat on his fingers and touched his tongue.
And finally lifting up his eyes up to the heavens he groaned the word
EPHPHATHAH – which translates - Be opened! And right there, they were really opened and his tongue was unchained, and he spoke just fine!
Jesus gave them a command, “Say nothing, to nobody!” But he could tell them whatever he wanted, they talked it up all the more. They were beside themselves just saying: He sets everything right again! Even the deaf can hear and the speechless do speak!


Turning the world upside down

I have been always intrigued by the magical plasticity of our perception and how it alters our understanding of the world and informs and broadens our decision making. Take for instance the famous upside-down perception experiments. Neuroscietists fitted people with semi-permanent goggles which turned their vision upside down. Understandably, first several days were almost unsurvivable for everyone. On the fourth and later days participants started to cope and soon they lived almost as if they did not wear these perception altering glasses, they were even able to ride a bicycle for instance. When they took the glasses off again, their perception returned instantly or soon.
       As I am writing this article, we are returning from summer holidays in Dominica, an island member of the British Commonwealth. It is an almost dizzying experience to drive on the left side of the road. It vividly reminded me of my seminary year in Scotland. Driving on an opposite side of the road is difficult, strangely, being a pedestrian, is not much better. For a day or two I did not know where to look first. Many times over I was surprised by honking and occasional squeaking of the brakes coming at me from strange and “wrong” directions. After about two days it got better.
       Our view of the world, our inner image of the world and our position in it is result of our psychological and cultural influences and viewpoints. For instance, do you know, how Australians view the world? It isn’t upside down, but it isn’t so much different. Just look at Australian maps! I had a very early introduction to the Australian world view because my first English teacher had some Australian friends.
       In her classes she liked to use some nicely printed travel magazines from “down under.” These magazines also included world maps with an “Australian spin”. These world maps were not drawn around the Atlantic basin – to the contrary - in them the Atlantic laid on the edges of the world and the Pacific basin and Australia were at the center, or very close to it (actually the 150th meridian was the center line. It looked something like this:

Thus in the third or fourth grade I learned to appreciate the fact, that the image of the world is a reflection of our cultural and psychological predispositions, and our cultural and educational influences. Australians do what we all do - view ourselves in the center of the world.
       Unfortunately many people are mentally lazy, and thus are not conscious of this fact. In addition, their world can be quite small, even in one of the largest metropolises of our planet. Mental images of the world for many people are built around their persons and don’t reach beyond their longest shopping trip.
       Thus, looking at the world from different positions and angles can be a healthy mental, cultural and spiritual exercise. As a permanent visual reminder I have in my church office a map which looks something like this:

       This map is arbitrary like any other cultural convention, yet how profoundly it can change our perspective of the world. Momentarily it can put us out of balance. However, it can help us to realize how much our outlook is a self-centered cultural prejudice. Expanding our personal horizons can lead us to become more humble and open minded, especially when we realize it is not just an intellectual prank, it is a lived reality.
       True Christian faith, faith, which is not just another cultural convention or ritual, real faith, deep and unpretentious faith which enjoys and welcomes challenges, is a prime example of life changing and dimensions expanding experience. In the moment when we encounter it, it can give us headaches because it has tendency to turn everything upside down. A first reaction is often rejection or dismissal, but when taken in as a challenge and processed and accepted, this transformative faith has the potential to broaden life and change life perspectives. In our open-minded and progressive faith we go against the stream of our environment (either secular or conservative Christian). We continue turning expectations, conventions and prejudices on their heads and thus continue living our Christian faith openly and honestly.

(The Renewal, Autumn 2012)


Eyesight and insight.

Some time ago I attended a small but very stimulating anthropological conference on Prince Edward Island. (Yes, I flirt with the Julian Jaynes' theory.) At the conference a  group of neurologists from Halifax talked about visual processing. As it happens, they accompanied their talk with spontaneous hand gestures. It was almost amusing to observe a group of neurologists waving their hands not in front of their faces but right behind their heads as they spoke about vision. Of course it made sense! The greater part and the final stages of our visual processing are located right there, on the back of our heads, in the occipital lobes.
       Unwittingly these neurologists provided a marvelous modern illustration for my paper on historical determination of body image. The further back in time you go, the more unusual and strange body images and metaphors you can get. In the ancient Hebrew language, the heart was not a seat of emotions (such as love). It was a metaphor for energy and resolve. Emotions were seated in the liver for males and in the womb for females. Spirit was breath, but could be also poured out, because it was a container for life-giving blood. Similarly, ancient Greeks did not think with their brains, or at least they did not think they were; for them brains were for body-cooling purposes. Guts, on the other hand, were responsible for processing sympathy and care. Body image, self understanding and consciousness present us with a complex set of hermeneutic (interpretational) conundrums.
       Well, why bother, you might ask. First, because it is interesting. Second, because we can better understand the Bible(and other ancient texts), third, we can better understand ourselves and unblock some of the limitations of our own self understanding.
       Try to say: “I saw it with my own eyes!” and simultaneously tap the back of your head. It feels weird, does it not? But it is marvelous training to understand the otherwise obscure and dated saying ascribed to the synoptical Jesus: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, also your whole body will be full of light." (Mat 6:22). This is not about any eye! This is about clarity of perception, or even better, about our mental health, about epistemology, how we perceive, know and process and react to the outside word. In the end, this is about clear thinking. You can read this verse and tap, this time, the top of your forehead - your frontal lobes - seat of your memory, self control and volition. Right there in the frontal lobes we all still need so much enlightenment!


Beware of (spiritual) Junk Food!

Spiritual Junk Food? What is it? Does such a thing exist?
I am convinced that it exists and represents a real danger for human spiritual well-being.
       For several Sundays the lectionary readings have included sequence of passages from the Gospel of John. In it Jesus delivers a chapter-long discourse about real bread and bread from heaven, and about earthly hunger and real spiritual hunger. As I was thinking about the passages, it dawned on me: Wait a moment! This allegory is clearly two thousand years old. It’s so pristine and innocent that in our times it is almost unreal.
       They clearly did not know about our ubiquitous junk food. They clearly did not know about junk food which gives a short sensation of satiety and soon brings gnawing cravings and hunger for more. They clearly did not know about junk food that was industrially constructed to hit sweets spots (reward centers) in your brains; They clearly did not know about junk food which presents itself as homely “comfort food” but in fact creates deep seated physiological and psychological dependencies and even addictions; food that pretends to be cheap, clean, convenient, and economic, but is nothing of these! Food that makes poor people (those who eat it most often) even poorer, physically unwell and chronically ill. Food that hurts the people who eat it; the food that hurts people who are exploited (employed for pittance) to make it; the food that hurts animals that are farmed for it; the food that hurts and cripples the environment in which it is produced.
       I am certain that if the synoptical Jesus lived today, he would protest. He would protest against exploitation of fast-food workers, he would protest in his teaching and parables against the marketing and feeding of junk food to the most vulnerable. He would also perform a few healings, such as curing some cases of type 2 diabetes, restoring a few amputated legs, and reverting a stroke or two. Later, his apostles in their letters to communities scattered across the American Bible Belt, would provide some spiritual encouragement as well as practical advice about how to live faithfully in a religiously hostile environment. And finally, Jesus of the Gospel of John might use the image of junk food to give us strong warnings against false religion.
       It’s that kind of religion where you are served what you want to hear and not what you need to hear. A religion that answers modern anxieties and emotional needs by providing instant comfort and cheep assurance, but over the long run produces gnawing alienation. A religion marketed in large stadiums and mega-churches, that leave people isolated and alone. A “prosperity religion” tailored and marketed with promises of cheap grace and personal(egotistic) salvation, which in fact creates deeper dependency, addictions and poverty. An easy religion without honest challenges, which enslaves and deprives people of independent critical thinking.
       Thankfully, the Biblical tradition is full of recipes about how to avoid this kind of false religion. This Sunday we will be looking as far back as the book of Leviticus. The phenomenological interpretation of the ancient law for peace offering (feast) will help us avoid or heal junk-religious poisoning.