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."


Mood matters

Mood matters!
Mood really matters a great deal, even in the Bible. And here I don’t mean any moodiness, tempers or emotional swings.
     I speak about the grammatical mood. The most common and best recognized moods are: the indicative “You are light.” the imperative, “Be light!” and the conditional - “We would be light after it gets dark.” 
There are many more verbal moods such as interrogative - “Are you light?” the potential verbal mood - “We may be light.” the optative mood - “If only we were light!”, the jussive “You shall become light.” or the exhortative - “Let us be light!” These are just the most common verbal moods and you can see how substantially they can transform the meaning of the verb.
    Shortly after my arrival in Edinburgh as a student with only limited comprehension of spoken English, I attended a church and was surprised that the minister preached so passionately about lettuce! Soon I realized he was not an ardent gardener or salad chef. His interest in lettuce was actually caused by his proclivity for using exhortative “let us...”.
    When Jesus said to his audience (not only to his disciples, but also to common folks) “You are light.” He did not command, “Be light!” He did not encourage “You should be light.” Nor did he threaten, “You should rather be light!” Jesus used the plain indicative mood in clear declarative power, he said “You are light.” It was a declaration, an affirmation, an EMPOWERMENT.
    Unfortunately, as early as the time of the writing of the gospels, people did not sustain this power of Jesus’ statement and diluted it by attaching several exhortations. Clearly, Christians and especially preachers have this horrendous propensity to exhort, to form salad churches, with salad worship and salad theology, full of moralizing “lettuce - let us...” (Who could be surprised that they are so often so easily tossed even by the weakest trends, and dosed with spiritual sourness?)
Jesus did not exhort, he did not threaten, he declared, affirmed and EMPOWERED all those who were marginalized, vilified, persecuted and oppressed nobodies - YOU ARE LIGHT!
Let us heed and follow him! ;-)


Creepy omniscience

“NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!” Shrieks Cardinal Ximenez in the famous sketch done by Monty Python.
    My seminary professor of church history was Amedo Molnar, worldwide expert and published scholar (books and articles in Czech, French, German and Italian) on medieval reform movements, especially Waldensians. In his classes we read the early inquisition records from the archives in Bohemia, Austria and Bavaria.
    To theology students under the communist regime it provided an interesting insight into the mentality of secret police. Technology progressed (medieval inquisitors did not have cameras or wiretapping), but the main techniques and mentality remained the same; the use of fear, ruthless efficiency, and almost fanatical devotion to institutions (to quote Monty Python again).
    Common modern prejudice portrays inquisitors as a bunch of pathological brutes. They were nothing like that! Inquisitors were intelligent, creative, thorough, organized, hard working, with the best of intentions and sincere in their convictions. They gathered and sorted information into comprehensive and reliable archives and produced theoretical studies as well as practical manuals. They instituted safeguards to protect the integrity of their processes and controlled their own human inclination for cruelty (for instance substantially limiting the use of torture). In all respects the inquisition was much gentler than the interrogation by the common feudal yeomen.
    All these achievements of inquisition don’t impress us anymore; they do not exonerate the process and this medieval institution. We simply don’t buy their primary premise. Heresy, a doctrinal challenge to the established church, might be real, but it is not and never really was any substantial threat to civilization. Heresy was just one of those labels which the authority used to keep people in fear and under control, to justify its schemes and its power.
    This Sunday we will ask why it is, that human pursuit of omniscience is always so creepy, thoroughly dangerous and in the end unsuccessful and cursed. The Biblical Psalmist (Psalm 139) will help us to ask even deeper questions; When and where did the religious notion of divine omniscience come from? Is divine omniscience really integral to our faith? Might it be that this divine omniscience is spiritually and psychologically unhealthy for humans and toxic even for God? What is the difference between god knowing-all and God feeling-all. What is the difference between god - the divine intelligence officer and the God of self-giving compassion?

Albigensians also known as Cathars
are driven by inquisition from the city of Carcassonne in 1209.


3.14159265358979323846264... and Faith

Would you know how to calculate the volume of a spherical cap?
     Well, in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon I refreshed my high school mathematics. The volume of spherical cap is V = (3r²+h²)πh/6 where h is the height of the cap and r is the radius of the base of the cap.
    BUT DON’T WORRY, the Sunday sermon will not be a mathematical lecture. A few elemental mathematical facts will only help us to better appreciate the Bible and understand our faith.
    How could math help us to open up and deepen our faith? Because while describing the equipment in the Jerusalem temple (specifically a large bronze water basin 1 Kings 7:23-26) the Bible makes a shameful mathematical blunder defining
π as equal to 3. Fundamentalists of all possible streaks and stripes tried an almost unending list of strategies and explanation to harmonize the Bible with reality. In the 19th century the pious American faithful even tried to legislate (declare by a state law) this biblical value of the Ludolph constant. There are rumors about these legislative attempt in Kansas, and Iowa and almost “successful”attempt in Indiana. Of course it did not work! The number “Pi” is not 3 even if the Bible says so. Any attempt to harmonize it with mathematics is an elementally misguided endeavor because this is not the only mathematical blunder. Here comes the reason for calculating the spherical cap; the volume of the basin according to the Bible was off by about 150%. (And I leave completely aside the impossibility of any ancient foundry handling about 30 metric tons of bronze). 
     Biblical authors were eager to exaggerate and embellish the furnishings of their faith tradition; they were not interested in detail and accuracy. They were poets not mathematicians. They were evoking impressions and feelings using large amount of life giving water, a fresh water sea in Judean highland (all 7,750 gallons of it). Our deeper understanding of life and faith streams from their aquatic evocations.


Polytheism, Monotheism and Beyond

An abstract from my presentation at The 2013 Julian Jaynes Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Mind (June 5-8, Charleston WV).
Julian Jaynes presented an interesting anthropological theory of the origins and development of religion. He based most of his observations on Classic Homeric material with only cursory attention given to a few other regions and traditions. Recent developments in our understanding of the Near Eastern religious milieu and especially the most recent developments in our understanding of the Biblical religion asks for closer attention and assessment since it can provide interesting new perspectives and supportive insights.
    Small cumulative advances in the academic study of the Biblical texts (So-called Biblical minimalists also known as the Copenhagen School — Thomas L. Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche together with other scholars, for instance Philip R. Davies) and especially in the discipline of Near Eastern Archeology (Israel Finkelstein, cooperating on popularizing volumes with Neil Asher Silberman) started to accelerate in 1990s. Simultaneously the dating of the final authorship of the Biblical texts has been moved forward by several centuries to the Persian and perhaps even later Hellenistic period (the Persian dating being proposed by Peter Frei). It is now a well-established fact that the Biblical text cannot be used as a direct source for the study of Ancient History. For instance the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, the Exodus narrative, the sagas of the unified monarchy of David and Solomon are now viewed as predominantly literary compositions.
    The full appreciation of the fact that the Biblical texts and narratives do not relate history in a straightforward fashion is only a negative aspect of the recent development. This development is complemented and greatly surpassed by a positive impact. Religious texts, appropriately understood, can help us decipher, illuminate and understand some of the most fascinating and complex anthropological processes.
    For instance, viewed in the ANE context, the Biblical texts preserved (like DNA) remnants of the developmental stages of monotheization of the original (polytheistic) religion. The work of Mark S. Smith from NYU and others ANE scholars like my Edinburgh professor Nicolas Wyatt clearly demonstrates that the Bible contains a substantial part of the North-West Semitic pantheon and mythology. Their publications illuminate the complex and diverse processes which lead toward the final form of the monotheistic text.
    Ancient myths were “democratized” and transformed into heroic legends while divine characters were re-named and re-coined as patriarchs and other human characters. The North-West Semitic Pantheon and the characteristics and functions of its original deities were assimilated (god El), substituted (gods Yarich and Shemesh), subsumed and sublimated (goddess Asherah) expropriated and suppressed (god Baal), or inhibited and obscured (plethora of minor deities). Old religious practices were re-framed, re-narrated, hidden, forbidden and/or suppressed.
    From a different point of view and with different accents, it can be described with Jan Assmann as a transition from the concept of multiple immanent deities representing natural forces towards a transcendent deity as a guarantor of the natural order. This process was accompanied by a transition from a broadly inclusive natural religiosity to a strictly exclusive supranatural one. We can also observe a simultaneous shift from sacrificial religion to a religion concerned with education and teaching (a shift from orthopraxy to orthodoxy) and from an oral tradition to the written fixation of religion.
    I find this new understanding of the development of the Ancient Near Eastern religion surprisingly harmonious with Julian Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind and its transition towards modern consciousness. The theory of Jan Assmann should be of particular interest. Assmann outlines a fast transition/shift from the primary to the secondary religion which cannot be reversed and which he calls “the Mosaic Distinction”. I would like to suggest that the immanent, natural, oral, inclusive and orthopraxy-oriented religion represents an original (and organic) religion of the bicameral stage and perhaps an early post-breakdown stage. As the process of the breakdown of the bicameral mind deepened, religiosity started to move first slowly, but inevitably, towards transcendent, supranatural, written, exclusivistic and orthodoxy-oriented religion. Breakdown of bicameralism and the disintegration of organic religiosity, are simultaneous and complementary processes. And just like the modern concept of consciousness, any contact between old organic religiosity and new world religions leads to irreversible changes in self-understanding.
    As the world monotheistic religions are discovering and deepening this ability of anthropological self-reflection, we are clearly entering a new stage of religious development. A radically new form of religiosity, non-dogmatic, post-transcendent, is becoming possible and probable just like some kind of new reintegration of the human mind and self understanding.

Directly associated older blogs:
Lady Wisdom, Did YHWH have a wife?, Outrageous biblical patriarchs, How many gods made up God?, and this slide from a presentation on the shift in sacrificial practice.

Julian Jaynes 1920 - 1997


New Faith Idiom

    Right before I left for a vacation this spring, I had a unique religious experience that was special, peculiar, and at the same time emblematic of our current times.
    I was asked to officiate at the wedding of Agus and Jeremy. Jeremy is nominal Episcopalian and Agus is Muslim born in Indonesia. They came to us at Rutgers encouraged by our mutual Jewish friend Wendy who attends meditation classes in our community programs, sings in our Church choir and is familiar with the inclusive and welcoming spirit of our community of faith and our deep respect for diversity and the unique.
    Thus, in the service we read from the Hebrew Bible, from the Greek Testament, and also from Al Qur’an in an exquisite celebration of deep genuine love. I have read from Al Qur’an in Church on several times before, but it has always been to illustrate a point in sermon. This time it was different, not intellectual, but worshipful. The reading from Al Qur’an was an integral part of liturgy. You most likely know the Song of Song and the Song of Divine Love from Corinthians, our Bible readings, but American knowledge of Qur’an is not to be automatically expected, so here is the quotation from Surah 30:
       “Among divine signs is that God created you from earth,
       and you are now human beings dispersed everywhere.
       Another of divine signs is that God created mates
       of your own kind of yourselves
       so that you may get peace of mind from them,
       and put love and compassion between you.
       Verily there are signs in this for those who reflect.
       Among other divine signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth,
       and the variety of your tongues and complexions.
       Surely there are signs in this for those who understand.”
(And I care little that the original Arabic, being a genderized language, has “mates” in female form, it is just a legitimate hermeneutic shift to apply it in our modern times and gender neutral culture to same gender relationships.)

    The same spirit of appreciation of love and diversity shaped this unique worship throughout. Jeremy and Agus now live in Bali and thus for the wedding processional and recessional music they chose the Gamelan Semar Pegulingan. It’s a special music played in honor of local Balian Hindu god Semar, a deity of good fortune and love.  I had never really known it and it instantly caught me by my heart, it is so different and ethereal. This music is played on ancient instruments and in very unique archaic seven-tone scale. This particular live recording even had Balian crickets chirping along on the background! (This link does not lead to identical composition or recording but can give you some idea.)
    Even further in this inclusive spirit, we opened the worship with an old Asian tradition of burning incense to honor ancestors and include all the distant and absent friends and relatives who could not join this celebration. We used the singing bowl to mark this important transition in their lives and entrusted the couple to each other and to AGAPE - the divine love in all this diversity of religious traditions, readings, accents, sounds and smells.
    I find this joyful worship experience symptomatic and hopeful. Nolens volens (like it or not) the world is getting more and more global, interconnected and complex. Jeremy and Agus are almost an embodiment of this reality. World religions, each with its own exclusivist claims, struggle to accommodate while alienating individual people in the process. (Can you imagine any imam marrying a gay couple?!). Hardly anywhere else is this reality more evident than in the cosmopolitan metropolis like NYC. Fundamentalists of all different stripes might try, but they cannot stop it. It is a tectonic shift in the cultural global scale.
    In our church we are now entering process of listening and gathering insight from our broader community and discerning what God is calling us to be and do. This might be an important spiritual part of this process. Where is the balance between exclusivist doctrines and rituals and the inclusive spirit of broad welcome? Where is the balance between doctrinal and ritual integrity, as important as they are, and the disarmingly inclusive spirit of Jesus, who did not care about human labels, but cared for the well being of people beneath the labels of Samaritans, Phoenicians, Romans or Jews? While a dwindling number of traditionalists inside as well as outside might like the church “as it always used to be,” a growing number of people are left outside to their own devices, alienated, spiritually hungry and searching with very little help.
    The Divine Spirit is as always at work among people,  and She is steering the hearts of people. Do we have courage to learn, to listen and to love (AGAPAO) with open minds?

By the way, conservatives in our own Presbyterian denomination are all worked up about preserving the purity of what they call CHRISTIAN marriage. Our wedding ceremony certainly did not fit their narrow definition of “Christian”. How should the inter-religious marriages be categorized and celebrated? In our ceremony we all tried our best to be faithful to the inclusive spirit of Jesus and his deep respect for human longing for wholeness, acceptance, and divine presence.