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Archive for August, 2018

Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018

JESUS, TEACHER OF THE FULL TORAH

…work out your salvation in fear and trembling. (Phillipians 2:13)

The full Gospel and the full Torah

Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 2:2  Paul gives us the full Gospel, explaining that he is determined to convey only his  knowledge of Christ and him crucified.  This knowledge does not refer to consciousness, information, or skills.  Paul was not an anchorite meditating on the Crucifixion of Christ 7/24 in a cell with disciples shoving him meals through a crack in the wall.  Paul had skills, wrote a lot, made stuff on weekdays, like tents, and preached on the sabbath.   In Corinthians Paul writes in Greek but thinks in Hebrew, where knowledge (Heb. daát) means something like intimate connection, as in the euphemism “he knew her in the Biblical sense.”

Jesus is our exclusive savior, but the Gospel, in the sense of evangelism, is not our exclusive preoccupation.  Paul’s words in Philippians are problematic because contemporary Christians tend to jump to evangelical conclusions.  This  makes the verse liable to a salvation-by-works reading which contradicts the Pauline doctrine of of grace.  However the phrase “work out your salvation” does not refer to the initial free gift of salvation.  It refers to the unpacking, assembling, and use of God’s gift.  What are the principles which ought to guide the life of someone who has gotten Jesus for free.  Do we send a thank you note?  How do you send a thank you note to God?  Surely we send it with our lives…as a “living letter.”

But then again, do we even need send a thank you note?  The antinomian would say “no”…that sending a thank you note is an insult to God.  Rather, we ought to live our lives with riotous abandon…showing the heathen what a great God we have who saves even the most contemptible sinners.  This view, though a minority position among theologians, actually crops up from time to time.  Let’s leave that discussion alone, since most Christians, whatever their failings in practice, are unlikely to be antinomians in principle…unless perhaps their common sense has been interfered with by too much theological subtlety.

Jesus the Teacher of the completed Torah

Most people will want to send God a thank you letter with their lives.  They will want to live their lives according to a pattern which is pleasing to God.  However they will also be careful not to give others the impression that they have earned their salvation through good works.  The antinomian is a rare but dangerous breed, and ever ready to pounce upon those who “trust in the law and not in grace.”

Yet, apart from those rare and eccentric antinomians , it is usually acceptable to be good, and even ever so, very, very squeaky clean good if you really want to be.  However if you ground your goodness according to Biblical standards, be prepared to face criticism, and not just from hard-core antinomians and kindred free-spirits.  Be prepared to face criticism from Christians, and even, perhaps especially, from morally rigorous Christians.

Morally rigorous Christians will agree that the gift of the gospel should evoke an ethical response from the believers.   However they are wary of the so-called “Old Testement”…a.k.a., the Torah that both Jesus and Paul knew and taught, albeit in a way which differed radically from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis of their times.  Torah (the life instructions and guidelines found in the beginning of the Bible) is supposed to be something other than, if not contradictory to, Christianity.  If you are determined to be good, then at least you should add some extra-Biblical criteria of goodness to your faith.  How about some virtue-ethics from Aristotle?  Or how about some Stoicism or Buddhism?  Marx anyone?  The last thing we want is an ethics drawn straight from the Bible, lest we be called Hebrisers…or worse, actual Jews!

Furthermore, weren’t the lives of both Jesus and Paul a string of unrelenting debate with Torah rabbis?  Well, yes, but that actually proves the opposite.  Jesus and the Pharisees were rivals, which means that both were struggling for the same thing.  They were both struggling for Torah.  The Torah of Jesus seems like a “new” teaching, or Torah.  However it was actually the teaching of the Pharisees which was new.  The teaching of Jesus was actually the old Torah of Moses, which was new in the sense that we speak of a priceless antique being “made like new” once the patina has been removed from its surface.

What was the difference between the Torah of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and the Torah of the scribes and Pharisees on the other?  Jesus taught the full Torah, his contemporaries taught only a partial Torah.  What does this mean?  Well, it is said that there are 613 precepts in the Torah.  Does this mean the Pharisees were teaching only 612 and Jesus was preaching the full 613?

Is this numerology or something?  Heaven forbid!

To avoid majoring in the minors, we need a succinct summary of the Torah.   As long as God has been kind enough to provide us with just “ten words” in the Bible which we need to obey, let’s lay aside the notion of 613, or some such number, precepts.  Usually these Divine Words are called “the ten commandments” but out of sensitivity to the law-phobic let’s call them words.  There is another reason to call them the “ten words”…since God’s words flow together as a single idea, expressed in a complete sentence.  If you take one of the words out it changes the meaning of the sentence completely.  That is the meaning of “you must keep the whole of the law”…not that anyone is actually expected to keep 613 “mitzvot” or commandments.

The scribes and the Pharisees were very good at keeping nine out of the ten commandments.  These nine are all things that one can do, or refrain from doing, with the body or using outward verbal expression.  The tenth commandment is different.  It is completely mental.  Superficially it seems to be a law against envy.  The authorized version uses the old-fashioned word “covet” which means “wanting to have something which other people have.”

Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat on your spouse.  So far, if your conscience has even a spark of life in it, so good.  But what about “Don’t even think about any of that stuff!”

That’s the Jesus difference.  Jesus was teaching the full Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching only 9/10ths of the Torah.  It is not that most scribes and the Pharisees fit the cruel caricatures in which they are often depicted in Christian drama.  As far as intentions are concerned, they were probably outstanding in the degree of kindness and consideration they exhibited towards their peers.  In particular, they wanted to exculpate their contemporaries, and especially themselves, from the onus of violating the psychological implications of Torah. Their reasoning was as follows:

“Look, we know that the human mind is impossible to control.  The prophet Jeremiah himself said that it is the slipperiest and most deceptive thing in all creation.  Let’s be realistic.  If you will just act in a way which is socially responsible and morally decent, we will give you a pass.  What you think is your own business.”

This sounds reasonable, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last word of the ten words.  That word is not just about cravings for sex or the possession of buildings and domestic animals.  It is about the normal mental disposition of fallen humanity, a disposition which makes us so unsatisfied with our lives that we are, in extremity, driven to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill.  These actions don’t suddenly appear without cause.

The late Rene Girard, a French emigre who taught anthropology at Stanford University, noted that the object of the tenth word, i.e. “coveting” was the wellspring of all fallen humanity’s actions.  According to Girard, we are driven by a desire, not just to usurp the possessions of others, but to displace them in their very existence.  In the eyes of the (tenth) commandment breaker, the crime of the man or woman in our own chosen field (our neighbor) is not just that they have more “stuff” than we do.  Rather, it is their existence itself which is offensive to us.   We think, even if we do not say, “So and so has my same ideas, aspirations and attributes, and in fact is more successful than me in promotion of these things, yet paradoxically, so and so is not me!   What am I to do?  I must displace him or her…since there cannot be two of ‘me’!”  The preferred method of rivalry is to imitate the rival, to become a more successful version of the rival.  Yet who can become a better ego than their rival alter ego?  Hence elimination follows upon the failure of imitation.  Indeed, if things were allowed to take their natural course, breaking the Tenth Word in thought would lead back, by degrees, to breaking the Sixth Word in practice.

Jesus had an intuitive grasp of all these deep and unsettling truths, since they lurked at the bottom of the Tenth Word of the Torah, disguised by homely language about houses and cattle.  He recognized the essence of the matter and was not afraid to teach it.  He knew that breaking the last word, like removing the keystone from an arch, would cause the structure of the prior commandments to collapse. His rivals, intent on establishing a practical religion of action (both performed actions and prohibited actions) were horrified that the firewall between the body and the mind had been breached.  They feared that a psychological Torah would be impossible for anyone to keep.

Their fears were well founded, but Jesus continued to preach a psychological Torah anyway.  In this regard, as in all others, it was Jesus who was the orthodox Torah teacher, since Moses had already insisted on purity of mind as well as body.  His rivals were content with a seemingly tolerant, but increasingly minute religion of actions, an “orthopraxy” in the stead of “orthodoxy.”

Fear and Trembling

It is not that anyone needs to practice the Ten Words in order to get into heaven.  That is not what the “fear and trembling” is about.  The fear and trembling is the vision that we all should have of the contrast between a perfect God and the manifestly depraved tendency of the human mind when left to its own devices.  The Tenth Word, the word against Envy, is the capstone of Torah, just as the monotheism of the First Word is its foundation.

Just as his rivals feared, Jesus, in preaching a Torah which condemned the mental quality of envy as well as the increasingly vicious actions which proceed from envy, was preaching a Torah which is impossible for human beings to keep.  Moses had already understood the incompatible relationship between the moral teachings of Torah and the imperfections of human life, which is why the sacrifices of atonement were instituted in the temple.  With much greater confidence, Jesus, looking forward to the Messianic atonement, taught perfect doctrine to imperfect creatures.

We cannot live utterly without envy, and even if we could, it would not get us into heaven.  However we can “work out” our heavenly destiny by unpacking and living out the teachings of the anti-envy doctrine, which is one of the treasures which has been delivered to the saints.  It is edifying for us, and also a great way to say “thank you” to the God of our salvation.

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The Four Story Mountain, or, the Judeo-Christian worldview explained while standing on one foot

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 15, 2018

Four levels of reality

Perhaps these should be called dimensions.  I know some will think that the term “dimension” has a kind of flaky New Age feel to it.  Actually if I were going to be precise I would prefer to call these four pairs of antinomies.  You like dimensions better?  I thought so.

The first level of reality, the dimension in which we live and pursue our life-goals,  is the world of the good and the bad.  I don’t need to tell you about this.  We know, inherently, when we are in a good state of mind and when we are feeling bad.  In this dimension life is about getting into the pleasant, the successful, the desirable, and avoiding their opposites in all departments of our experience, aesthetic, gustatory, sexual, social, intellectual…and so forth.  We can call this the natural dimension.  There is nothing wrong with it, we can say it “is what it is”…since rightness and wrongness only arise when we proceed to the next level.

Ethics

This is where it gets dicey.  I’m defining each dimension of human life in terms of an opposition between a positive and a negative state.  The problem is that the words “good” and “bad” in English and many other languages refer to several opposed qualities which are quite different in nature.  Initially I mentioned those good things and situations which were pleasant or desirable.   There “good” and “bad” referred to contrasting states which were distinct from a moral goodness which is opposed to wickedness.

This is the major donkey bridge on the entire route up the four story mountain.  Many people maintain that ethical goodness and material well-being are just two aspects of the same thing.  The usual suspects when it comes to this error are naturalists, materialists, and utilitarians.  Yet even apart from these hardened expositors of a world which is confined to a single dimension, there is a popular prejudice that happiness and goodness ought to go together.

It is hard to argue people out of this position, since it is so appealing.  Only experience can teach that there are many wicked people who seem perfectly happy.  Of all those who have lived on Earth few have had David son of Jessey’s range of experience, from shepherd to king and both sinner and saint.  A major theme of his poems is the disjunction between existence and ethics.  The evidence of human affairs is that there is little if any connection between happiness and goodness, or wickedness and suffering.  Only by raising himself out of the mire of human affairs and seeing that there was a higher level of accountability outside of creation was David able to assure himself that  the principle of justice was ultimately vindicated.  The very souls which wax fat in the material world become lean in the spiritual world.  Virtue is its own reward and vice its own punishment.  But not here…somewhere else.

The Spiritual

So there is a somewhere else.  However this somewhere else is separate from not only the material pleasant and unpleasant, but from the ethical and the unethical.  Material pleasure and ethics pertain only to life on Earth.  The goodness of the spiritual world is not the same goodness as the indulgences of this world.  In the material world goodness is a goodness of confluence with experience, while the essence of spiritual goodness is separation from worldly delights and desires.

Likewise with ethics, since where there is no desire, there is no need for such.  Ethics is only necessary when there is a need to apportion Earthly goods among rivals.  Once again, we have to disentangle ourselves from that homonym “good” which means something entirely different in a different world or dimension.  The opposite of spiritual goodness is not badness or wickedness in an ethical sense.  Its opposite is whatever is not spiritual, whatever is not separated from the material world, a.k.a., the “unspiritual.”

The more spiritual one is the less one is afflicted by the pleasant/unpleasant and the good/evil of the lower dimensions.  This is an attractive path for some, especially those who are attracted to the Eastern Religions.  However it is ultimately a wasteful trajectory since it consigns the lower two levels to the garbage heap.  In spite its apparent monism, spirituality apart from redemption is actually a duality comprised of a despised world and an attractive refuge.

Godliness

The worldview of the Judeo-Christian scriptures posits a further dimension beyond that of any agnostic “spirituality.”  It is a world of Godliness in opposition to…well, really nothing since everything is of God, however for the sake of the argument, let’s say ungodliness.   Not just any god (everyone has a god) but the Creator, who, while a spirit, made the material world and is determined not to waste it.  This means that the spiritual cannot be “beyond good and evil” since God must bend down to concern himself with even the lowest, the natural (or rather the created) world.  This requires an act of redemption, but in the end it unifies everything, in contrast to the dualism of the Eastern paths.  And you thought it was the other way around didn’t you!  So in essence we have four dimensions or worlds and each defined according to the polarity of a different “good” and “bad”

desirable/ undesirable

righteous/wicked

separated/engrossed (from the material world)

Godly/separated (from the Creator)

Of course if we take these out of our sequential argument, label them, and flip them over so that they correspond to a hierarchical order we have

Divinity

Spirituality

Ethics

Creation

That, to the best of my understanding, is about the simplest outline that you are likely to find that maps out the Judeo-Christian world-view.  However it is not the simplest possible account of the universe, and hence it fails by the criteria of Occam’s razor.  The simplest account would be that of the materialistic naturalists.  None the less, I feel that this account has one overriding advantage…it’s true.

Furthermore, I must confess, I couldn’t stand on one leg throughout that exposition.  So any apostles of yogic duality who have been holding their stork posture, yeah, you win.  The posture competition…not the argument.

 

 

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