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."


Names on the doorframes

While preparing for the sermon this Sunday (Healing of the Centurion’s partner) I came across interesting information which made me to stop and think about our church and its doors and door trafic.
    In 1976 archeologists discovered in south west Turkey, in the ruins of an ancient Hellenistic city of Aphrodisias, a unique artefact. They found a column which most likely was  used to flank the entrance to the local synagogue. The column was covered with a long list of names. On one side were 19 names of a building committee. On the other side were 107 names of donors to the building fund. Sprinkled among the the members of the building committee, five were not born Jews because three were described as converts and two as sympathizers (worshipers of God). Financial supporters on the other hand were clearly divided into two groups - 55 regular members of the congregation and then after a narrow gap the inscription continued “And those who are God-worshipers” followed by 52 Greek names of  sympathizers, many of them high ranking city and military officers. Faith community in Aphrodisias was clearly quite a lively, open, surprisingly inclusive place.

Appropriate part of Aphrodisias' inscription with highlighted ΚAΙ ΟΣΟΙ ΘEΟΣEΒΙΣ "And those who are God-faithful"
    Then I started to think about our Rutgers community of faith. Who could be mentioned on our doorframe? Of course the members of our worshiping community, our founders, our donors, and supporters. Also included should be all sorts of supporters and volunteers and friends who are forming and shaping our broader community. And now who are all those who are crossing our doorstep: volunteers from our Thursday meal program, a weekly unemployment self-support group, a group for nursing mothers, a group for mothers of newborn babies, a meditation/relaxation group, AIDS support meetings, a creative writing group for budding artists, Feldenkrais exercisers, nannies bringing children to our programs and using our space to have a quiet moment. A twice-a-week meeting for GLBT marathoners, a large and growing Boy Scout troop, a weekend homeless shelter, an almost daily many different AA and Lambda groups. And I cannot forget about one hundred or so different classes for children and adults.
    Meanwhile we open our doors to special events like concerts, community meetings, an elections polling place, as well as special meetings such as two Saturdays ago we hosted a day-long meeting of about 70 Veterans for Peace from the North East, next week it will be a public hearing and discussion on the immorality of solitary confinement. At any one time you might hear a Mandarin song from the fourth floor, a soccer whistle from the basement, or you can come across a class of nursing mothers and hear an operatic voice exercising from the mezzanine, while smelling 60+ delicious dinners being cooked on the fifth floor ...
    Even our Sunday worship becomes a new experience with the regular and joyful participation of those who might be called seekers, and sympathizers but certainly not traditional last century Christians. We come for all different reasons, sometimes personal and communal, sometimes political, cultural, social, and spiritual and all of their combinations and mixtures. Even without any inscriptions on the doorposts, at Rutgers we indeed continue in the ancient-new experiment of forming a lively community of nondoctrinal faith, truly inclusive, a metropolitan church with a very broad embrace.
    In place of doorframe inscriptions we have started to bring to our sanctuary art from our community classes. This Sunday it is a new installation of a chancel curtain inspired by the Ghanian artist El Anatsui.


Lady Wisdom

Once in three years on Trinity Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary prescribes its followers to read a quite surprising text from the Proverbs 8. The final part of the reading, and also its most perplexing part, is a hymn of Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-31). This hymn, when translated without ideological (dogmatic) blinders, and with understanding of the Ancient Near Eastern religious milieu, would hardly be considered orthodox by most Jews or Christians.
Yet, it can also help us identify and understand deeply rooted inhibitions and "neuroses" of our religion. I wrote about it little here - "Religion in need of therapy"

Hymn of Lady Wisdom 
“The LORD has married me*,
even before his oldest works. 
At the beginning I was put in place**,  
well before the beginning of the earth. 

There were no oceans, and I was to give birth***,
even before the springs broke with water.
Before mountains were planted,
before the first hills appeared,
I was about to give birth.

Before he had made the earth with its borders,
before the first lumps of dry land (emerged).

In his fixing of the heavens, I was ...
in his cutting of the arch of horizon above the face of the sea.
in his hanging up of clouds above,
in his pushing up the fountain springs from below.
in his setting of limits to the waters,
so that they would never transgress his commands,
in his establishing the pillars of the earth ... +

In all of this I stood faithfully by his side,
day after day I was the one of his delight ++
his purest joy at all times.
I gave (him) joy in world of land,
and delight in humankind.”

Some translation notes:
* קנה (QNH) in fact “acquired me”, “bought me”, as in Ruth 4:4ff. It certainly is not "fashioned, created, etc" as often rendered in church-pew translations. Other interpretation option is derived from the meaning "to beget, to procreate" - and translating "he has begotten me"
**  נסך (NSK)“installed”, used often about princely figures, other possibility is to translate "he has fashioned me (in his womb)". In the text above I have translated in the sense that Wisdom was married to YHWH (was bought and placed/installed on his side). It is also possible that first two verses speak about Wisdom being begotten and formed in the womb of YHWH (similar to Athena and Zeus). Being born of YHWH to become his partner. Ugaritic text KTU 1.23 similarly oscillate between vocatives father and husband
*** חול (WL) – Polele/Polal stem depending on punctuation – is not to give birth“ (which in the passive might have been – to be born“ as often translated) but to dance/whirl in trance/pain“, in intensive stems to give birth“ - if passive stem it would be "was twisted by pain, was brought to labour".
+ Nice rendition of classical Semitic creation locus.
++ שׂחק (SQ) “to laugh, to make sport”, just like צחק (ṢḪQ) “to laugh” for instance in Gen 26:8 or Exo 32:6, might have some sexual overtones.

       Lady Wisdom in this poem shares many characteristics of the major Ancient Semitic goddess Asherah. It is almost certain that Lady Wisdom is just an attempt to re-coin the original goddess Asherah, consort of the god El, and subsequently also the wife of YHWH after El and YHWH were merged. (More on YHWH and Asherah, epigraphic finds etc. in this blog entry - "Did YHWH have a wife?")
      With monotheisation of the Tanakh religion one half of the divine couple, the goddess Asherah, was suppressed and in the early stages degraded into hypostasis (actually something more like mere allegoric figure) of Wisdom. 
1) As consequence of this simplistic rush to monotheism (not by integration but by rejecting half of the divine gender roles) monotheistic religion became grotesquely patriarchal and misogynistic. 
2) This forceful divine divorce also led to the almost complete abandonment of the classical ancient cosmogony (in which the world is being "procreated" by the divine couple). God and the world became completely separated, the world and nature became objectified, resulting eventually in an ecological crisis.
3) This degrading of a major deity into a mere allegoric figure also had a reverse regressive effect on the appreciation of the reality which had been alegorised. Thus wisdom (appreciation of  reason and science) became suspicious, associated with strategy of suppression and rejection. 

       Clearly these three major problems: misogyny, uneasy relationship with environment and tension between religion and science remain major crippling issues of Judeo-Christian (as well as Muslim) religions.  


Religion in need of therapy

Do you know how psychotherapy works?
    One of the common techniques is to identify some neglected, seemingly long-forgotten, often suppressed personal memories, and bring them up and process them in the open. It is important because we often only pretend we have forgotten, while the issues linger behind and strain our lives, just like things swept under rugs make walking on them quite difficult. Good psychotherapy is like cleaning under these rugs. If participants are diligent and honest, this simple technique can have a surprisingly cathartic, liberating, healing effect.
    Why am I writing about this in the Friday Message? Because the Revised Common Lectionary prescribes for us this Trinity Sunday a biblical text from the book of Proverbs (chapter 8) which can help us identify and deal with a bunch of baseballs hidden underneath the hallway rug. 
      If we want to live our faith honestly and without constant tripping, if we want to live and understand our Judeo-Christian faith in joy, we need to bring this text up, and process it in the open with all honesty. It can help us understand, process and deal with some unfortunate yet deeply rooted features (flaws) of our religion (results of ancient suppressions), such as deep-rooted misogyny, or seemingly unavoidable tension between faith and science, and last but not least our religion’s alienated relationship to nature. 
      This Sunday we will take our religion to therapy, we will do some under-carpet cleaning. We will attempt to take those baseballs out, with the hope that the path of our faith will become easier. And perhaps, later, we might even have some fun, go out and enjoy game of ball.
In this (following) blog entry called "Lady Wisdom" is an attempt for an objective translation of Proverbs 8:22ff and an abbreviated reflection of its importance for the health of our today's religion.


Ground the drones now!

Warnings from Modern Prophets (SciFi Writers)
    In 1920 the Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek coined the word ROBOT in a very early science fiction play called R.U.R. (Rozum’s Universal Robots) - here is an English translation. In this play, human engineers created artificial biological beings; today we would called them “androids”. Čapek called them Robots, deriving their name from an old Slavic word for servitude. In his dystopian vision Robots were ever more severely exploited and finally used to fight human wars until they rebelled, and turned against their creators and eliminated the human race. Only in the very last sentences of the play, in the epilogue, is there a glimmer of hope, when a couple of the most human-like robots with procreation ability are sent out to start a new human-like race.
    A great number of science fiction writers were always weary of the human propensity for doing evil and the ability of their technological creations to reflect and even amplify this destructive ability. That was the reason why famous American Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov formulated, as early as in 1942, three basic laws of robotics:
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
In theoretic and fictional ways writers and thinkers explored and further perfected these laws. In thought experiments it became obvious that the absence of these or very similar laws has dire consequences for human culture and even existence.
    Why do I write about it? Because such dystopian development is becoming a very current possibility. The American military (and even the C.I.A.) have been operating for years drones equipped with weapons. They have killed thousands of people (often civilian women and children bystanders) in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and who knows where else. As morally problematic (even corrupt) as this form of warfare might be, until recently these drones were remotely operated by humans - officers working in shifts. But the military has a serious problem, even “well trained” (understand patriotically brainwashed) officers are not completely immune to human feelings. The human element, even if kept safe and isolated in distant rural military bases, turned to be the weakest element of this murderous strategy. It is a chronically under reported fact that the units of drone operators have serious burnout and drop-off problems (some of the original drone pilots or gunners even becoming difficult vocal opponents). And thus, lately it has been reported that the military and its DARPA (Scientific defense agency) started to play with an idea of eliminating the human factor all together. There is a real danger that soon we will have true killing machines independently calling shots unburdened with such “useless” complications as conscience and moral feelings. And of course they will be unhindered by any such thing as the Basic Laws of Robotics in any of their forms. You do not need to be a fan of Science Fiction to see where it can take us!
    I am getting increasingly worried. It is time to start listening to biblical as well as modern prophets. Biblical prophets warn us against human evil, greed, aggression, militarism and imperialism. Modern prophets (SciFi writers) explicate how human moral flaws can be expanded and multiplied by technology. We should take their conjoined warnings seriously and insist on having the three basic laws of robotics integrated into every artificially intelligent machine.

Isaac Asimov 1920-1992


Fire and Religion

Religion is like fire. It is hard to imagine the existence of civilization without them, but when they get out of control, they can cause extensive and serious harm! 
       Within Christianity, there is hardly a better holiday to remember, reflect and celebrate this reality than the Holy Day of Pentecost. 
       In a genius shorthand, the evangelist Luke condensed a long process of the formation of Christianity as an independent religion into a single day, a single event, and anchored it into Pentecost. It became known as birthday of the Church, accompanied with the gusts of wind and descending flames of fire. 
       This presence of fire at the stated beginning of Christianity is  not a mare coincidence. Fire and flames as heralds of divine presence have a long history. Abraham sealed the solemn covenant with a burning furnace. Moses met with the LORD at the burning bush. Israelites of the Exodus were lead by columns of smoke by day and of fire by night. And we must not forget  the prophets, for instance Elijah’s chariot of fire.
       Clearly our God has a close relationship with fire. Fire is one of the most regular signs and attributes of divine presence. It is a fitting symbol for God and especially for the Holy Spirit. Of the ancient elements -  Earth, Air(and space/sky), Water, and Fire - Fire is most enigmatic, energetic, changing, most alive, most fascinating. Indeed, as I have quoted in the first sentence, religion is like fire. Fire and religion are essential for our civilization; without them we would be just bands of monkeys. Fire and religion are exciting, life-transforming, community-building, art-inspiring, people-feeding, opening new possibilities and horizons, liberating. But religions out of control, false religions, dosed in superstitions, can also be very dangerous, destructive, enslaving, harmful, even life threatening and life taking. 
       This Sunday we will be talking exactly about religion and fire. Indeed, inspired by an Old Testament prophet, we will be playing with fire. (But we will keep the fire extinguisher on standby.)

And here is a picture from the recreation of the Carmel Ordeal.
We set a stone alight - and a basin beneath it alike.