Monthly Archives: May 2019
Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons. Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all. Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.
In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:
Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.
Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.
One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil. The world, as is apparent to anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur. In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable. For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is. There’s no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon. The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad. Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans. Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like. For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense. Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad. They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”. Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”. In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is. We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit. Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana. At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery. Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss. As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.
With Gratitude and Honor
Gracious God, on this Memorial Day weekend,
we remember and give thanks
for those who have given their lives
in the service of our country.
When the need was greatest,
they stepped forward and did their duty
to defend the freedoms that we enjoy,
and to win the same for others.
O God, you yourself have taught us
that no love is greater than that
which gives itself for another.
These honored dead gave the most precious gift they had,
for loved ones and neighbors,
for comrades and country – and for us.
Help us to honor their memory
by caring for the family members
they have left behind,
by ensuring that their wounded comrades
are properly cared for,
by being watchful caretakers of the freedoms
for which they gave their lives,
and by demanding that no other young men and women
follow them to a soldier’s grave
unless the reason is worthy and the cause is just.
Holy One, help us to remember that freedom is not free.
There are times when its cost is, indeed, dear.
Never let us forget those who paid so terrible a price
to ensure that freedom would be our legacy.
Though their names may fade with the passing of generations,
may we never forget what they have done.
Help us to be worthy of their sacrifice,
O God, help us to be worthy.
– J. Veltri, S.J.; courtesy of here.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citzenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
–Dwight D. Eisenhower, farewell radio and television address to the American people, Washington, D.C., January 17, 1961. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960–61, p. 1038; courtesy of Wikiquote.
Usually I post music on Fridays and quotes on Sundays, but things have been hectic of late, so I’m playing catch-up today. Enjoy!
All the efforts of several hundred thousand people, crowded in a small space, to disfigure the land on which they lived; all the stone they covered it with to keep it barren; how so diligently every sprouting blade of grass was removed; all the smoke of coal and naphtha; all the cutting down of trees and driving off of cattle could not shut out the spring, even from the city. The sun was shedding its light; the grass, revivified, was blooming forth, where it was left uncut, not only on the greenswards of the boulevard, but between the flag-stones, and the birches, poplars and wild-berry trees were unfolding their viscous leaves; the limes were unfolding their buds; the daws, sparrows and pigeons were joyfully making their customary nests, and the flies were buzzing on the sun-warmed walls. Plants, birds, insects and children were equally joyful. Only men—grown-up men—continued cheating and tormenting themselves and each other. People saw nothing holy in this spring morning, in this beauty of God’s world—a gift to all living creatures—inclining to peace, good-will and love, but worshiped their own inventions for imposing their will on each other.
–Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899), translated by William E. Smith, Chapter 1; courtesy of Wikiquote.
Nothing is more certain than that whatever has to court public favor for its support will sooner or later be prostituted to utilitarian ends. The educational institutions of the United States afford a striking demonstration of this truth. Virtually without exception, liberal education, that is to say, education centered about ideas and ideals, has fared best in those institutions which draw their income from private sources. They have been able … to insist that education be not entirely a means for breadwinning. This means that they have been relatively free to promote pure knowledge and the training of the mind. … In state institutions, always at the mercy of elected bodies and of the public generally, and under obligation to show practical fruits for their expenditure of money, the movement toward specialism and vocationalism has been irresistible. They have never been able to say that they will do what they will with their own because their own is not private. It seems fair to say that the opposite of the private is the prostitute.
–Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: 1948), pp. 136-137; courtesy of Wikiquote.