Author Archives: turmarion

The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart–a Review

There any number of translations of the Bible, in full or in part, and more each year, it seems.  There are classic Bibles like the King James and Douay-Rheims versions, modern Bibles such as the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible, Protestant Bibles, such as the New International and English Standard versions, Catholic Bibles, such as the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible; there are more traditional formal equivalence Bibles (the New King James), dynamic equivalence Bibles (the Good News Bible), outright paraphrases (the Living Bible); and on it goes.  To this number has recently been added a translation of the New Testament by Greek Orthodox scholar and theologian David Bentley Hart.

Hart has made a name for himself as a scholar, theologian, and cultural commentator, having published eleven books and numerous articles in both professional journals and in venues such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Atlantis, and First Things.  Hart had planned to translate the New Testament for some time, but a spell of ill health slowed him down.  Finally, he completed the translation, which was released in October of 2017.

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Where Have You Gone, Carl Sagan?

Sagan and Carson

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?  A nation turns its lonely eyes to you–Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson”

Sometimes I feel that way about Carl Sagan.  Carl Sagan, for those of my readers who may be too young to know of him, was probably the greatest and most familiar science popularizer of the last century.  He was especially visible throughout the 1970’s, which was a partial inspiration of this series, of which this is the long-delayed first post. Sagan was more than just a 70’s icon, though.  I think he is a symbol of a bygone–and in some ways, better–time.

Carl Sagan had an M.S. in physics and a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.  At various times, he worked closely with NASA (he conceived the idea for the plaque placed on the space probes Pioneer10 and Pioneer 11) , had Top Secret clearance at the U.S. Air Force and Secret clearance with NASA, was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, published research on the atmosphere of Venus, and researched the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For nearly the last thirty years of his life, he was associated with Cornell University.  Beyond his professional and scientific accomplishments, substantial as they were, Sagan was best known for his extraordinary effectiveness in bringing science to the masses through all the available media of the day:  print (magazines, newspapers, and books), film, and TV.  Had he survived to today (he died, tragically, of complications related to myelodysplasia at the age of sixty-two in 1996), I don’t doubt he would have had a substantial social media presence.

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Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livinston Seagull

This is the first book in my series “Your Own Personal Canon” that is not the scripture of some major religion.  It was, however, and is, an important book in my life, albeit for reasons that even now are not completely clear to me.  It is also unusual in how it came to be in my personal canon.  For me as for many people, a book often grabs me at first read.  It hits me over the head, draws me in at once–it’s like falling in love.  Bam!  Then it’s part of the canon. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was actually not love at first reading; and thereby hangs a tale.

I first encountered the book when I was a freshman in high school in 1977.  As far as I know, I hadn’t been aware of it earlier than that.  My decision to pick it up was a pure whim.  In most of my life up to that point, my reading had consisted almost completely of non-fiction (the books of Jane Goodall, books on science in general, and such) and science fiction (particularly the works of Isaac Asimov, whose non-fiction I read widely, too; the Star Trek novelizations of James Blish; and others, mainly of the hard type).  In my freshman year, I branched out.  I read all three novels in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; and, if I recall correctly, 1984 and Brave New World.  It’s true that all of these are science fiction or fantasy in format; but for the first time I was reading books that were not mere genre, but which had some additional literary heft.  Perhaps my whim was a directed whim.  Who can say?

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Attaining Nibbana: Orientalism, Protestantism, and Translation


If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”.  You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”.  “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated).  Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means.  True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence.  Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.

What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”.  The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, is more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism.  Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit.  The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language.  Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.

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The Dread Pirate Robert Explains the First Noble Truth

Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Universalism in Various Religions: Miscellany

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths.  There are other important religious traditions to consider, but the remaining ones, by and large, cannot be grouped together as we’ve done in the last two posts.  Therefore, this post will be a bit of a grab bag.  The order in which I consider the various religions with which I’m dealing here will be broadly by type or cultural zone (e.g. I’ll look at the Chinese religions together); but once more, there will be no formal grouping of religions by category as before.  Therefore, go below the cut tag and we’ll begin!

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Abrahamic Faiths

This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity.  This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety.  Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism.  I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism.  In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category.  This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.

The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular.  Thus, we will look at them first.  Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course.  However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below.  We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.

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Updates and Coming Attractions

As with most things in life, the rhythms of blogging go in cycles.  Sometimes I am full of ideas and I have (or can make) the time to write about them.  Blogging then comes thick and furiously.  At other times, the muse is absent, the well is dry, and things go on hiatus for a longer or shorter period of time.  Such are the vicissitudes of life.  I sometimes think I should be doing more, but from my first forays into blogging I resolved not to beat myself up over regularity.  I have tried to do journals/diaries in the past, and it never worked out.  Blogging has turned out to be a fruitful outlet for my writing, and has gone on much longer than any attempt at journaling that I’ve ever attempted.  Thus, for everything there is a season–a time to write and a time not to write–and I’m OK with that.

The last couple of years have been relatively fallow, but in the last week I’ve started putting up posts again, and I have some ideas for posts to come in the near future.  No doubt I’ll go into fallow cycles again in the future, but for now I hope to be a bit more productive.  In line with that resolution, I’d like to discuss some of the plans for upcoming things I have, for those who are regular (or even new!) readers of the Chequer-Board.

First, I am currently working on a review of David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament, and I hope to have it finished and up within the week.  I will cross-index it under “The Pretty Good Book“, “Universalism (What the Hell?!)“, and “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy“, for reasons that will be apparent when I post it.

Second, there are some recent developments on the polygenism front that I want to look at, as well as some new findings regarding animal cognition that I think ultimately tie in to that.  This, in turn, is relevant to any account of the Fall of Man; so I hope to resume work (at least intermittently) on “Legends of the Fall” (the end of which, alas, seems nowhere in sight).

Third, I think I’m essentially finished with my series on universalism (linked above).  I will put the review of Hart’s New Testament there, as I said.  I think I may have one or two short pieces to add, as well; and then I’ll add a wrap-up piece, while of course leaving open the possibility of future addenda, as they suggest themselves.

Fourth, in the slightly longer term, I’d like to continue my series on Star Trek:  The Motion Picture and “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality“.  I pretty much know where I want to go with those, and have had either the ideas or the beginnings of posts (or both) for continuing each series, but haven’t got around to it.  I hope to do so soon.

Fifth, in the somewhat longer term, I desperately need to fix the index for the “Daily Whitman” series.  As you can see by visiting the link, the index is incomplete and has been for some time.  For various reasons, it has proved to be a fiendishly difficult thing to do properly, unlike the relatively simple index for the “Rubá’í of the Day” series.  I have plenty of non-blogging stuff on my plate as it is, and given the complexity of fixing this table, this is something that may have to wait awhile; but it is on my “to-do” list.  Meanwhile, you can use the tags to reach individual installments of the “Daily Whitman” series.

Sixth, I may remove the “Movies” sub-page from the blog.  I used to post a lot of movies, documentaries, and shorts here, but the transient nature of YouTube being what it is, I have scads of dead links lying about.  I’m not sure that it’s worthwhile maintaining them; so I may delete the “Movies” page and/or the individual movie-containing posts.  I’m not sure yet, but we’ll see.

Seventh, and most nebulous, I intend eventually to resume posting series of poetry (probably Masters’s Spoon River Anthology or the haiku of Kobayashi Issa next).  I’d also like to revisit some of my other series, and, wonder of wonders, maybe even start some new ones, or even do some stand-alone posts.

Once more, life is as it is, vicissitudes and all, so I can’t be sure as to the exact schedule on which I’ll be able to do all this.  Keep your eyes out for news and update here, and as always, thank you very much for your continued support!