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."

2012/02/24

“Abba” isn’t “Daddy!”

“Abba” isn’t “Daddy!” it is so much more and so much more precious!
       Abba is a famous Christian Semitic loanword (together with for instance Alleluia or Amen). Abba means “father”, not “daddy” as  popular opinion would often like to have it. Sentimental theology came up with the idea that Abba was a word from the children’s vocabulary and that it corresponded with Jesus’ unique relationship with God. This idea became quite widespread and deeply rooted in the popular imagination. It is attractive, but it is wrong! This idea needs to be challenged because it represents only a shallow veneer of sentimentality, while true reality beneath is deeper, truer, more transformative and radical.
       There is no question that Jesus called God father. He even might call God Abba, although that is not altogether certain. Jesus’s family circumstances of a fatherless child and most likely also a childless and landless man (the very bottom of the social hierarchy) certainly gave him a unique perspective on life. He had first hand experience, deep understanding and heightened sensitivity and a bond with the small, weak and marginalized. And to this unique relationship Jesus invited and introduced his disciples by encouraging them to call God father.
       In this Lenten season our Sunday sermons will be dedicated to refreshing and re-hearing the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer which we say so often so casually. It opens with a simple address of God as father. It is not an endorsement of any patriarchal domination system. Quite the contrary, if we repeat it from the lips of Jesus with understanding, we consciously and emotionally bond and side with all the societal underdogs. It offers us a new perspective; it has power to transform and change our lives, and so much more!

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And for those who read this far here is some background information.

       The Gospel of Mark offers us a rare unintended glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. The people in Nazareth dismissed him, asking derisively: Isn’t he that carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Judas, and Simon, and don’t we all know his sisters? (Mark 6:3)
       It offers us surprising and powerful insight:
Jesus was poor - I think that Mark correctly states that he was carpenter, while the later tradition in Matthew tries to correct it into carpenter’s son, but at this point it really does not matter. Jesus was TEKTON which was not a cabinet maker nor a craftsmen erecting buildings and roofs. It simply meant that Jesus was not a farmer. He did not own (inherit) land or did not have enough land to support him. He was just another landless day-laborer.
Jesus was an illegitimate child - he was clearly born out of wedlock (Even if you take miraculous stories seriously). Mockery in Nazareth reveals something more. In patriarchal society which measured status by a long list of male ancestors, Jesus is called the “son of Mary”. It is so unusual that the closest biblical example of a son being publicly identified by his mother is in Judges 11:1 "Now Jephthah from Gilead was a mighty hero, he was the son of a prostitute, fathered by whole Gilead." Thus reference to Jesus as “the son of Mary” appears only in the oldest tradition and is quickly omitted and edited out later.
    This is further supported by ancient extrabiblical tradition which is almost as old as some of the New Testament writings. In the second century a philosopher called Celsus penned the first known attack against Christianity. In it he alleged that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier called Panthera.
    Interestingly, a Tombstone of a Centurion called Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera was discovered in 1859 in Germany. This Pantera died near Bingerbrüg in Germany around year 40 C.E., but he was born around 20 B.C.E. in Sidon in Phoenicia. We cannot be certain that this Pantera is identical with the Pantera mentioned by Celsus, his name was common among soldiers, but it is certainly an interesting coincidence. Celsus clearly touched a live nerve with the early Christians, because almost a century later the famous theologian Origen still considered it important enough to attempt refuting Celsus’ hearsay.

    I do not know why church started to conceal and embellish Jesus’ origins as if they were ashamed of it. For me the truth is always powerful and revealing.
    Only when I discovered this non-legendary origin of Jesus, did I finally start to understand him. It clicked in! Jesus was born in an obscure Galilean periphery, in a small insignificant village, a poor and illegitimate child at the very bottom of the social pile. Finally I saw and understood how and why in his ministry he had such a weakness for the weak, how and why he had such a heightened sensitivity for injustice! And we can also understand why his calling God father was so radical and transformative. This God Father shares the same interests in the lonely, forgotten, marginalized, and oppressed. 

       And finally Jesus (or early Christians) was/were patently subversive to the Roman imperialism. Just think about it all against the background of the Roman Imperial Ideology where Father of the Fatherland (PATER PATRIAE) was one of the highest and most desirable titles of the Roman Emperors. (See for instance self-laudatory propaganda of Augustus in his Res Gestae Divi Augusti §35 - Final paragraph of his monumental "Acts of Divine Augustus".
       The Romans trumpeted their emperors as fathers. These fatherly emperors epitomized Roman patriarchal system, imperial power, wealth and military might. Christians, on the other hand, with every prayer did something very subversive, they invoked the exact opposite, the Father of compassion, forgiveness, justice and peace. The true father of humanity is not a self-promoting tyrant in Rome but the Heavenly Father of all the despised, marginalised, oppressed and exploited. 

Acts of Divine Augustus - Fascist replica of Roman imperial propaganda

2012/02/19

Ash Wednesday - Phoenix' Day

When I studied at the Protestant Seminary of Charles University in Prague, for my first two years every day to and from school I walked past the Prague New Jewish Cemetery. Through one of the side gates I could easily see the simple gravestone of Franz Kafka and his family. And just as I was learning Hebrew; above the main gate I was able to read the large Hebrew letters, a stark and powerful reminder, which read: 'APHAR 'ATTAH W'EL 'APHAR TASHUB. “You are dust and to dust you will return!” (Genesis 3:19b That was the first Hebrew sentence I read.)
       Ash Wednesday is often misunderstood. Ash Wednesday’s primary focus is not sinfulness or misery. Ashes are not a metaphor for dirtiness of any kind. Dust or ash is a powerful biblical metaphor of our shared human mortality, and therefore it is a call to repentance (knowing our proper place).
       And just as the Ancient Greeks had their stories of the Phoenix who is born again from ashes, Jewish and Christian believers should hear the powerful message of the legendary, archetypal (larger than life) sufferer Job: “I know one thing, My redeemer lives, and at the end, will stand up for dust.” (Job 19:25)
 

       I have several dozen English translations and all translate the words imprecisely as “standing up on the Earth” which is probably influenced by the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation). However, 'APHAR is clearly “dust” not “Earth” and only the Jewish Publication Society translates correctly.

       On Ash Wednesday we mark our foreheads with ash crosses. It is a doubly powerful statement. The cross was the gallows for terrorists and seditionists, and ash was a symbol of mortality. The Christian protest (“pro-test” meant originally “giving witness for”) transformed the cross as well as the ash/dust into the hope for resurrection.
       Ash Wednesday is our phoenix day. We mark ourselves with ashes, thereby taking seriously both our mortality and our penitence in the hope of being reborn into the new flame.

2012/02/17

The Charm of Biblical Polytheism

Series of lectures attempting to initiate an in-church discussion about diversity and plurality of religions in the Bible, the Ancient Palestine and our World.


 
 

Rutgers Church Lenten Lectures:
February 29th  Did YHWH have a wife? - Archeology and the Bible: Surprising inscriptions illuminate ancient Jewish piety.
March 7th   Outrageous patriarchs - Myths in the Bible: Why is it that biblical characters so often act so strangely?
March 14th   What's wrong with magic? - Biblical Oracles: Rediscovering many surprising biblical divination practices.
March 21st   Many Deities of the Bible - Parade of divinities: How many gods are in the Bible?  How many gods make up God?

Selected literature:
Philip R. Davies: In Search of Ancient Israel, Continuum 2006
Philip R. Davies: Memories of Ancient Israel, Westminster John Knox Press 2008
Herman Gunkel: Water for a Thirsty Land, Fortress Press 2001(Articles from 1906-1928, edited and translated by K.C.Hanson)

Judith M. Hadley: The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah, Cambridge University Press 2000
Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger: Gods, Goddesses and Images of God In Ancient Israel, Fortress Press 1998
Niels Peter Lemche: The Israelites in History and Tradition, Westminster John Knox Press 1998
Thomas E. Levy (ed.): The Archeology of Society in the Holy Land, Continuum, 2003
Mark S. Smith: The Early History of God, Eardmans 1990
Mark S. Smith: The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Oxford 2001
Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton (eds.): Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, T&T Clark 2010.
Thomas L.Thompson: The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Trinity Press 2002
Steve A. Wiggins: A Reassessment of ‘Asherah’, Neukirchen Verlag 1993
Nicolas Wyatt: Myths of Power, Ugarit-Verlag 1996
Ziony Zevit: The Religions of Ancient Israel, Continuum 2001

On Hearing Colours: Qualia, Phenomenology and Transfiguration Sunday

Can you hear colours? I can not, like almost everyone else. But it is possible! On my way to the office I often listen to the BBC World Service. A few days ago I heard a program about a young artist who can hear colours. Neil Harbisson was born completely colourblind. When he was in college he met a cybernetics expert. Together they developed a sophisticated electronic gadget, which translates colours into tones projected into his skull. Different colours (spectral frequencies) were assigned unique tones (sound frequencies). Now Neil can hear colours. He even started to have colour dreams!
       This treatment is called augmented perception. It is great to witness these benefits of technology. At the same time you don’t need to study Kantian Phenomenology or know anything about “qualia discussion” to realize that this procedure rises some intriguing epistemological questions. How do we know what we think we know? How do we perceive and think about the world? How do we form the mental image of the world? How is it shaped or distorted by the limitations of our senses, or our earlier experiences, our education, our socialisation, our language, our religion? How is our culture shaping, shrinking or expanding our understanding of the world?
       This Sunday is called Transfiguration Sunday. The Gospel reading tells a story of three disciples whose perception of Jesus and their understanding of the world was suddenly and substantially transformed. It happened on a high mountain. High mountains have that strange ability. I know it because I personally experienced something like it last autumn on Mauna Loa (4,169 m./13,679 ft. above sea level). It was not a transfiguration vision, nor I could hear colours, it wasn’t supra natural experience, yet the barren, bleak environment of the high altitude lava fields offered me a captivating transformative experience.
       The greatest gifts of Transfiguration Sunday are these epistemological questions mentioned earlier. Recognition, that our mundane perception is just one way of looking at the world. It is like one set of spectacles, there might be other, broader, different, truer, musical, emotional, colourfilled, always liberating ... perspectives. We will talk about it this Transfiguration/Epistemological Sunday.

A hiker near the summit of Mauna Loa.

2012/02/10

Co-evolving God

This Sunday in worship we will celebrate Evolution Sunday. On the birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12)  we will celebrate the compatibility, and yes, the indivisibility of our human knowledge.

On May 29, 1944 the preeminent theologian of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge from the Nazi prison: ...Weizsäker’s book “The World-View of Physics” is still keeping me very busy. It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize God’s presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. (highlight A.S.)

Bonhoeffer wrote about modern quantum physics, but his observation can be applied to any science, including biology and its principal of evolution. God is not a stopgap of our knowledge, God is not anti-evolution, God, God's self, is the essence of life, and evolving life. If we say that we believe in living God, this God cannot be a rigid unchanging absolute. The Living God is a changing God, an evolving and a co-evolving God. The fourth chapter of the Book of Jonah strives to uphold and reveal just this message. While our idols (material or intellectual) are rigid, stiff and dead-bound, our living God changes, evolves, lives and promotes life. Come join us in celebrating our co-evolving living and loving God.

2012/02/08

Re-reading Jonah

For the last three Sundays we have been reading the book of Jonah. I know it is not easy stuff. Unlearning something familiar is difficult, but in certain circumstances it is the only honest and  liberating thing to do. We know we must challenge our long established cultural, racial, religious, national, gender or orientation based prejudices. Many of these prejudices are deeply rooted in theological and biblical misconceptions. The Book of Jonah is intended to deal with just that; every chapter is crafted to unsettle some serious religious misunderstandings.

Chapter 1 lampooned the larger than life prophetic ego. Common pagan sailors (old salts!) instinctively sought self preservation and life, and even their superstitious religiosity was more honest than the pathological behavior of Jonah, that prophetic necrophiliac .

Chapter 2 satirized religiosity, especially the form of piety which is just a cloak for personal agendas, and which is used to obscure true divine imperatives. The real monster was not the fish, but the revolting disobedience masked behind a flood of pious phrases and scriptural quotations.

Chapter 3 ridiculed the public displays of repentance (requested or ordered.) If you think that repentance or forgiveness can be mandated or commanded by anyone, then make your livestock or pets repent and dress them in sackcloth... Would they recite the rosary? Perhaps parrots?

I know, these are all quite challenging concepts. Especially when our predominant culture (especially church culture) has been teaching us that the Bible (or even God!) speaks only with a serious face, stern tone, admonishing vocabulary and exhortative grammar, in messages of pure morality. The point of the book of Jonah is that neither the Bible nor God do! This is solid theological scholarship, and has been for quite a while.

The last chapter of the book of Jonah is probably the most challenging and controversial, and potentially also the most liberating. Its focus is our human understanding of God. Clearly it must be the most rotted part of our human religiosity, because God again recruits a helper, not an angel, not a seraph, not even a big fish, but a maggot! Believe me, I am not making it up! A worm will help God to heal Jonah's (and our!) ailing faith and teach him (and us!) what it means to speak about a Living God.


Can God change? Is God like a piece of granite - inanimate, monumental, rigid, unchanging and slowly eroding? Or is God vulnerable, changing, evolving, living ...? Unchanging and eroding or evolving and growing?

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By the way, the "maggot therapy" is a tested, scientific, and official medical procedure.
 

2012/02/03

Life's Highways and Byways

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus speaks about the choice between two paths. The broad and easy road leads to destruction, while the narrow and difficult path leads to life. On the surface it is a deceitfully simple saying which is based on well established ancient metaphors; "path" as an image of life and crossroads as a metaphor for decision making. I am certain that behind this superficial simplicity lies a biting cultural and political commentary and criticism.

Small roads and paths are made by people and communities;
       while broad roads are built by states and empires.
Small roads are winding and respect terrain and even trees;
       while big roads take the shortest direction and uproot everything in their way.
Small roads are made by people to get around and to their neighbors;
       while big roads are built to connect cities and capitals.
Small roads are made to help communication and commerce;
       while big roads are built to project power and wage wars.

       I am not making it up; ask any anthropologist, cartographer, or civil engineer. Broad roads have always been built primarily for armies. The American Interstate System was originally devised and developed with civil defense and the army in mind. (The original official name indeed remains: Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways). The famous German Autobahns were started just days after the Nazi took over in 1933. The ancient Roman road system was built by Roman engineers primarily for the Roman legions.
       The first known extensive highway system was built by the Assyrians to expand and dominate their empire (probably the first known superpower in history). 
When we hear about Jonah preaching in Nineveh (the capital of Assyria) it was a direct challenge to the Assyrian's “evil ways.” Archeologists and anthropologists know these ancient ways and roads. They survey and excavate them. We can all learn from those ancient roads (their surveys and excavations) and so understand whether the Assyrians truly and sincerely turned from their evil ways. And even more importantly, we can ourselves individually and collectively learn more about this divine cartography and about our own choices between the ways of life and the ways of destruction.
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2012-03-21 One very efficient way of surveying ancient archeological sites and roads is through aerial or satellite mapping/pictures. Ancient abandoned sites and roads tend to show out with different colour of soil. Recently there was an interesting article in the BBC science section about the use of aerial archeology in the above mentioned part of the world (Northeast Syria and Iraq).