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."

2014/02/28

Say no!


This Sunday is the last service in our series based on Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Blunders of the World. The last blunder is “Politics without Principle.” Allow me to share a personal memory. Although it is distant in time, space, culture and political system, I believe it is relevant.
    Just days after I submitted my application to seminary in 1984, I was picked up from my high school class by two secret policemen for interrogation. Soon I realized that they were not after dissuading me from following my call. They wanted to turn me into their informer, someone whom they could assign to spying on my future fellow seminarians, teachers, and later on, my future colleagues in ministry, and even active lay leaders of the church...
    I was not at all interested or frightened enough to become their spy, and so they tried all different tricks, they were sweet and they were nasty, they promised things and hinted at some blurred dark threats (fuzzy threats are always more “effective”), they tried to trick me and they tried to blackmail me. And all that time in my mind I sang to myself that old yet aptly appropriate spiritual/blues “Say no to the Devil, SAY NO!”
    Thankfully, after several more unpleasant interrogations, they gave up. I was about 18 at that time, but I heard the call to be a pastor and not a snitch. Those were my first early, direct, practical lessons on keeping my integrity. Soon afterwards I read with appreciation and understanding a theoretical essay “The Power of the Powerless” by Vaclav Havel. The essay analyzed an abusive totalitarian system of morally corrupted and morally corrupting power. And he outlined strategies of new, non-political politics rooted in what he so nicely called “Life in Truth.”
    We do not live any longer in the bipolar world of the late 70s and early 80s. Strangely, as the world became more complicated, the borderline between right and wrong grew more blurred and less certain; “living in truth” is not any easier. Yet, whenever I get disgusted with politics, or feel betrayed by politicians, or feel powerless in making this world a little better place (quite often recently), I remember that the power of the powerless is real and it always starts at the ground level, with me, with us, with my and our integrity, with us living in truth.


And here is a snapshot from my personal Samizdat copy of The Power of the Powerless in Czech. It was typed by several of my friends in the 80s using carbon paper and making 15 copies at a time. This is a part from the end of the essay, Havel quotes Martin Heidegger and writes about a need for new form of “existential revolution” and expresses his hope in moral reconstruction of the post-industrialized society. After he, almost miraculously, became the Czech president, he tried and failed to make this dream a reality.
I still think that this need for moral, existential transformation of politics and social life is still present, even more so now at the beginning of XXI. century than in the last quarter of the XX. century.

2014/02/21

Divine Shopping List

Would you like to see a three thousand year old religious shopping list? In translation it looks something like this:
  • A ewe as a noble offering,
  • a dove as a noble offering,
  • a ewe as a noble offering.
  • Kidneys and liver of a bull and a ram for El.
  • A cow for Divine-ones,
  • Thukamuns and Shanims - a ewe,
  • Reshef - a ewe as a holocaust and a peace offering.
  • Two ewes for Divine-one,
  • a bull and a ram for Divine-ones,
  • a cow for Divine-ones. Baal - a ram,
  • Athtart - a ram,
  • Thhukamuns and Shanims - a ram,
  • Anat - a ram,
  • Reshef - a ram.... 
And I would not bother you any longer; this particular cuneiform tablet with a list of sacrifices continues on and on. And there are many such lists known from all over the Ancient Near East. When I worked on my dissertation my wife jokingly called them divine shopping lists. I admit that very few people can get excited about texts like this. But all of us can learn something interesting and important from them about the origins and nature of our own religion.
    These ancient temple sacrifices were not only religious rituals, they also played an important social function. Hardly anyone can imagine that the gods of Ugarit (in this particular polytheistic example) or YHWH in Jerusalem with similar feasts, could possibly consume all that meat even if they were helped by all the temple priests and clergy. In a Mediterranean climate and without refrigeration those mountains of meat had to be consumed fast. Social hierarchy certainly governed the customs of who got what, but the meat was widely distributed and shared with the entire population of the city, the rich and the poor. In short, religious feasts played important nutritional function for the entire society.
    Ancient worship was not any individualistic religious experience or a form of spiritual entertainment. Worship meant sacrifices and thus sharing food. It was ordered by God and supervised by priests and customs. Those long lists of sacrifices were in fact divine shopping lists providing food for everyone and especially for the poor. Sacrifices meant society-wide sharing - now think how far we got with our spiritualized, individualized religions! And that is why Mahatma Gandhi listed worship without sacrifice as one of the seven blunders of the world. Come this Sunday to seek how we can again reconnect our worship and our lives with true sacrifices, care for others and move our faith beyond spiritual entertainment.




And here below is the original shopping list in Photography, drawing, transliteration and translation and few words of explanation. 
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      This is actually the very first cuneiform tablet discovered at the tell Rash Shamra (Ugarit) on Tuesday, May 14, 1929. At the time of discovery it was the first cuneiform text of any nature in the Levant and both its cuneiform script and language were then unknown. The tablet is now referred to as RS 1-001 or KTU 1.39.
      The text is of a technical, religious-administrative nature and very difficult to categorize further. Some scholars interpret it as ritual instructions for an unknown feast, while others see it as a record of actual sacrifices. Linguists, anthropologists, theologians, and scholars of ancient religions learn from these technical texts the vocabulary of sacrifices, orthography of divinities, their geographic distribution, and attempt to discern the everyday(real) form of religious practice, which could be quite different from the form preserved in myths and other literary texts. (The religious text of Christianity is the Bible, but thankfully our Sunday worship is quite different from anything described as worship in the Bible.)

2014/02/14

Bad Theology of Creationism

I believe in God because of Evolution.
I can be a joyful person of faith only because of Charles Darwin and his scientific theory.
Creationism in any of its guises is not only bad science, but it is even more, dismally bad theology - strange and spooky superstition. Let me explain.
 

      These rocks are fossilised corals called Zaphrentis (scientifically Homalophyllum ungula). I picked up these rocks from the ground at the Louisville Theological Seminary in Spring 2000 when I lived and worked there for the PCUSA Denominational Headquarters. Devonian Limestone is full of these common corals and contains many more spectacular fossils.
     Now, Creationists claim (in one way or another) that God created all the sedimentary rocks by inserting into them these fossils and other ossified remains, with a clear intention to form an illusion of evolution. In order to preserve their literalistic understanding of the Bible these fundamentalists unwittingly created and started to worship a divine monster known in theology and philosophy as Deus Deceptor - The God Deceiver. According creationists, God created and maintains a complex illusion only to deceive curious humans and to test the blind faith of fundamentalist followers. I can hardly imagine a theology which could be more wrong. I do not believe and do not want to believe in the Evil Demon (Which is an alternative name for Deus Deceptor).
     In our series of Sundays dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Blunders of the World, this time we concentrate on Education without Character. Come this Sunday to embrace Education WITH Character, come to celebrate Evolution, come to celebrate a happy and curious faith, come to worship a God who is not a malevolent, insecure, capricious deceiver, but a loving, caring, mature parent, who desires to be our partner on the path of liberty.


          
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And for those who read this far:
    The problem of creationism does not consist only in fossil records. Fundamentalist creationism has a similar problem with paleo-magnetic geological records which are important for understanding the continental drift and plate tectonics. Rocks in different parts of the world would have to be created with intentionally shifted magnetic polarization to give the illusion of moving continents. 
     In a similar way all radioactive isotope decay datings of rocks would have to be intentionally staged but also fiendishly synchronised and matched in their deception - different isotopes would have to be intentionally and deceptively mixed and titrated in different rock formations to create an illusion of geological ages.
     Astrophysics would create even bigger problems - beams of light (streams of photons) would have to be created as already in flight to compensate for more than 13 billion light years of flight, not to mention deceptively mimicking gravitational lenses etc. 
   It would be almost impossible to match the fundamentalist’s five thousand-year-old universe with the observed physical world even for an omnipotent and omniscient deity. In the end it would be easier to do away with all the material world as one great illusion created by a deceptive deity and declare it just a feverish illusion.

     And as mentioned earlier, Deus Deceptor - the God Deceiver is a known philosophical entity. The best known is probably the famous Cartesian thought experiment which allowed Ren√© Descartes to arrive at even more famous Cogito ergo Sum (I think therefore I exist) and thus overcome radical doubt and establish Cartesian realism.
     Interestingly, uptight and dim-witted by their religious zelotry Dutch Calvinists of the early XVII century did not recognise Rene Descartes’ line of logical argument as a thought experiment and accused him of blasphemy for venerating the Evil Demon. (It would be like accusing Erwin Schr√∂dinger for killing cats!) 

    Their modern heirs, similarly vicious and uptight fundamentalists, switched sides. Now they themselves assume and worship Deus Deceptor to preserve any semblance of infallibility of their King James Bibles. What an amusing and fair historical irony!

2014/02/07

Commerce and Morality in the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers

As many of you know, our church continues a long-deferred and desperately needed reconstruction of our buildings. In these winter months the work shifted to our basement. There, under the old oil tank, we made a new epochal discovery, we found another part of the long-lost Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers. I am presenting the first draft translation from the New-Testament NewYorkish (Ancient English spoken around Verdi Square and The Ansonia landmark), here is the text:
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    One day Jesus’ disciples were again arguing about economy, politics and the morals of forgiveness. Sternly righteous James just quoted with his raised finger Mahatma Gandhi’s “Commerce without Morality.” Judas started to laugh, and guileless John kept asking what it was  all about. At that moment Jesus lowered with disgust The PalisadeStreet Journal he was paging through and told them this story:
    “Once upon a time there was this very clever banker. He did not run any petty savings bank - I told you, he was very clever. He was a director in an investment bank, trading in securities (buying and selling other peoples’ debts and mortgages) and he was making tons of money. Then he got even more clever - he started to churn out and deal in derivatives (selling what he did not have and buying what he did not want). He made even more money and was very important and very loud.
    Then, one night, he and all his friends did not have for the buyers what they had already sold them and themselves were left with what no one wanted to buy. He and all his pals ran to the head of government begging for bailout money, explaining that their businesses were too important to fail. And indeed they received hundreds and hundreds of billions in government money and not a single one of these guys ended in debtor’s prison.
    Yet, as soon as they returned to their banks, they started to collect outstanding loans of small debtors, evicting an unemployed man and his family from their home, confiscating the car of a single mom with three kids, forcing a widow into bankruptcy because she could not pay the medical bills of her late husband. In short, they ruined livelihoods and families of thousands, even millions.”
    And then Jesus added, “You see, for centuries and even until now it has been claimed by all-important "Reverends" and theologians of many different stripes that my original parable (preserved in Matthew 18:23-35 
The parable of the unforgiving servant) was utterly unrealistic, fable-like, exaggerated, and that it must be interpreted metaphorically, theologically and spiritually. Well, what do you think now? Isn’t it time, to start thinking again about how God would want us to order our lives?