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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 3) Saturdays with Scheler

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 13, 2019

Values or forms?

If my hunches are correct, then we will have to understand what Max Scheler meant by the difference between formal and value ethics if we are to have any hope of grounding conservative/libertarian thought on something deeper than its present eclectic ideology.  I hope to examine that ideology in a future post, but for now simply allow the compound “conservative/libertarian” vouch for its eclectic nature.  Now, in order to get a precise understanding of the difference between value ethics and formal ethics, we would have to delve into the dense jungle of philosophical and phenomenological investigation, the very prospect of which would cause any sane person to cry out for Divine deliverance!

Fortunately, Godly help has long since arrived, in the form of a Jewish teacher who walked our planet some two millennia ago, one Yeshua ben Yosef, better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Fortunately (from the perspective of our own autonomy as persons) He was not a systematic philosopher or theologian, but a wonderful poet and parable maker, a man stamped with the legacy of David, His ancestor, both king and composer.  The sayings of Yeshua are frequently enigmatic nuggets, intended for careful unpacking over time.   There is always considerable danger when we try to interpret such dense teachings, especially what Peter Leithardt has called the danger of “eisegesis” i.e., imputing our own ideas to a text, rather than the “exegesis” of carefully unpacking the text to find its true meaning.  I happen to think that the royal road into value ethics runs though the teachings of Yeshua, but you would be justifiably suspicious that I am engaging in eisegesis unless we can locate an issue where His sayings are pointing us directly towards the contrast between value and form.

In fact, it is the teachings of the Messiah on the Sabbath which provide (for non-philosophers at least) the most accessible portal into the form/value distinction.  The church has tended to treat this issue as either secondary (in the sense that ethics is secondary to the doctrine of salvation) or to use the sayings of Yeshua as proof-texts licensing either a change in, or abolition of, the Sabbath.   I must make clear that my purpose in this essay is neither to advocate for or against Sabbath observance.  However it is in the context of this seemingly arcane and irrelevant issue that we can both elucidate the way the Messiah would have us think of forms and values, and apply them to contemporary social and political conditions.

The Test Case

In Matthew chapter 12 vv. 1-14 a sequence of events occur involving questions by 1st century (i.e.,Tannaic age) Jewish teachers and responses by Yeshua.  These responses highlight the circumstances under which the Messiah feels that it is permissible to perform actions which would normally be prohibited between sundown of Friday night and sundown of Saturday night.  It is doubtful that his auditors were open minded enough to profit from his teaching.  However we in the 21st century may profit in an unexpected way if these teachings point us towards the distinction between formal ethics and value ethics.  It is almost as if the Fourth Word (i.e., fourth commandment) together with the Messiah’s response, were inserted into scripture by the Almighty to start us thinking in new ways about the foundations of ethics.

Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Words (i.e., Decalogue), which mentions the Sabbath, is uniquely suited as a test case for critiquing the concept of a formal ethics.  The fifth through tenth words comport only too well with our common understanding of morality, to such an extent that Divine authorship seems almost superfluous.  Conversely, the first through third flatter us during our pious moods, and fill us with numinous terror at other times.   All of the Words, including the fourth, are conveyed as imperatives.  However only the Forth Word arouses our suspicion that it is an arbitrary and extra-moral formalism.  Readers of Matthew 12:1-14, unless they happen to be Talmudists, will instinctively side with the response of the Messiah as a mere reiteration of common sense.  However this facile assent preempts a deeper appreciation of both the Fourth Word and the Messiah’s emendations.

The thinking behind this near-automatic assent goes as follows.  Sabbath keeping is framed in the imperative, and to the extent that it applies (of course, this is a matter of dispute) must be complied with.   However, this rule of the Sabbath is subordinate to a higher rule, that which mandates the preservation of human life.  This subordination of the Sabbath is illustrated by the actions and sayings of the Messiah in two or three categories, 1) staving off hunger by gleaning from fields, 2) healing the sick, and possibly 3) animal rescue (actually a limiting case dealing with property).

We are now liable to jump to the conclusion that we have adequately understood the difference between formal and value ethics.   It is all too easy to make the Fourth Word a stereotype of any possible formal ethics.  After all, it is an imperative and sharply delimits the kind of behavior ( or absence of behavior) permissible within certain boundaries of time and space.   Superficially, the Fourth Word is not about a good, or any kind of pleasure, but about a duty to be performed.  It would  seem to follow that whatever is antithetical to the Fourth Word automatically counts as a value ethics.  Hence, violations of the Sabbath in the cause of preserving life clearly promote a good, arguably the highest good of all, the ultimate value of human life.  Thus we might see in the tension between the Fourth Word and the attitude of the Messiah, a contrast between formal ethics and value ethics.

However this understanding is premature.  If we sifted them through the sieve of Scheler’s analysis, we would find both alternatives fall entirely within the world of formal ethics.  First we are presented with the formal ethics of Divine imperatives, which we feel authorized to forsake in favor of an alternative formal ethics which invokes the sanctity of life.  In effect, we have replaced the God of the Bible with another god, “Life” on the basis of which we can construct an allegedly superior system of formal ethics.  This way of thinking (life-ethics) has considerable appeal (and in the political context, both among liberals and conservatives) because it seems to rest on a solid axiom out of which moral imperatives can be generated.   However there is a difficulty here for anyone who wishes to invoke the sayings of Yeshua ben Yosef in support of this second system of formal ethics, a system which rests on the imperatives of life.  As it happens, this is not what the Master is really teaching in Matthew 12.

How would Jesus think?

Yeshua ha Moshiach (a.k.a. Jesus) actually gives two complementary justifications for “working” on the Sabbath, justifications which seem, according to the modern mind, congenial to life-ethics, but which in fact are based on radically different premises.  The first justification returns us to the original theme of these essays, the primacy of the person, and in this case the primacy of a Person.  If we resort to the insights of Scheler and certain other philosophers, we will note that they draw an important distinction between the concept of an “individual” and a “person.”  Granted in American usage we tend to talk about individuals in a robust way that conflates this analysis, as in “she is a colorful individual.”  However Scheler restricts the meaning of individual to the legal individual who stands as one unit within a democratic society.  In contrast to individuals, persons are not only unique, but morally asymmetrical in their relations among themselves.  Drawing on the test-case of the Sabbath for his illustrations. Yeshua, who as Messiah is authorized to speak on his own behalf, becomes the expositor of the Biblical system of ethics where a supreme Person is sovereign over all formal ethics.  From this initial, and supremely asymmetrical relation, we are ushered into a world where persons at large possess sovereignty over forms.  This because, while qua God, Yeshua is unique, qua human, he is the first born among the benei Elohim (sons of God).  It is this sovereignty over forms which was subsequently epitomized (by Paul and countless others) in the slogan “Christian freedom” a notion which should never be confused with the supposed abrogation of the Torah, which is at most an illustration or a test-case of a much broader issue.

The above, personalist, justification of Sabbath “work” can (in my opinion) be unpacked from verse 8, “The Son of Man is Lord of Shabbat.”  However Matthew 12 contains an important, correlative justification of Sabbath “work.”  This correlative justification is actually more interesting and foundational, even though it dwells on a level further down on the hierarchy of persons.  The Messiah gives the illustrative case in vv. 11-12.

He said to them, “What man among you will not grab his sheep and lift it out, if it falls into a pit on Shabbat?  How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!  Therefore it is permitted to do good on Shabbat.”

Again, the modern temptation is to assimilate this illustration to an ethics of life.  Parenthetically, it is not entirely clear (as per modern animal advocates) if the merely organic life of an individual sheep is of any less worth than that of individual of the homo sapiens species.  Never the less, I feel it best to depart from this line of thought in order to concentrate on the way the passage as a whole discloses the foundations of value-ethics, and in particular the way in which an objective value-ethics can be distinguished from the subjective valuation of objects.  I am grateful that the TLV passage actually uses “valuable” for the word which is translated “worth” in the Authorized version (KJV).

Now it should be obvious that “value” here does not refer to the subjective exchange cost of the man and the sheep.  Not that one couldn’t find some scholars who might be willing to follow that particular rabbit hole to its logical, and dreary, conclusion.  Thus, supposing we could find out what the average rent value of a laborer’s time or the purchase value of a slave was in the Levant during the 1st century of the Common Era, and then express such values as ratios against the price of a single head of sheep during the same period, we could no doubt test whether the assertion “the man was more valuable than the sheep” was true historically.  We could attempt such a historical investigation because “the man was more valuable than the sheep” is a meaningful assertion which is susceptible to testing.

However this is not the meaning which the Messiah gives the the assertion about “value.”  The word here is a conjugation of diapheroo which can mean any number of things, including “value” or “worth.”   However from the context alone it is clear that Yeshua is not speaking of subjective exchange value, but of what might be called an ordo amoris (i.e., an “order of the heart”) a phrase coined by Blaise Pascal but given closer treatment by Scheler.  The man is loved and the sheep is loved, but the loves are not equal in value.  If there is an underlying ordo amoris then the human being would stand higher in valuation even if the market price for a slave were lower than that of a sheep.  This is because, according to the kind of personalism which Pascal and Scheler advocate, there is an objective order of values which is independent of era, place, or economic calculation.  In the illustration provided by the Messiah, it is implied that there are sacred and intellectual values which bode forth through the thoughts and actions of the human being which are inaccessible to the sheep.  It is urgent to save the sheep, but it is even more urgent to save the man.  Both the necessity of saving the sheep and the man supersede compliance with formal ethics, as here represented by observance of (rabbinical) Sabbath regulations.

No right thinking person (even among the Talmudists!) actually disputes the response given by Yeshua to the Sabbath dilemma.  None the less, sloppy and casual treatment of the case has often led to either generalized and trivial conclusions or hair-splitting and divisive historicism.  For example, one might say, religious customs should not stand in the way of protecting life.  That is certainly true, but if we condemn formal ethics in the name of an ad hoc and indiscriminate category called “life” we are taking the first step towards materialism and utilitarianism.  Eventually we will have to sacrifice not only formal ethics but mind and the spirit as well.  Embracing value ethics saves both life and the Sabbath, in so far as it gives consideration both to the creatures and the ultimate Person, God Himself. It is the universal asymmetry of objective values which give them substance, in comparison with which both rules regulating time and protecting life stand as abstract generalizations.

It is only to be expected that historicists, relativists, materialists, positivists, modernists and post-modernists would all reject the idea of an objective order of values.  It is more tragic that those who oppose these main stream schools, i.e., paleoconservatives, paleolibertarians, traditionalists et al, are not in one accord with regard to the trans-historical objectivity of values.   This is a matter for further discussion, but hopefully Matthew 12 has epitomized the issues in question .  My contention has been that viewing the Sabbath controversy within the framework of formal vs. value ethics, brings out a broader meaning than that of either life-ethics or the Torah/anti-Torah diatribes, and (hopefully and prayerfully) is closer to the meaning intended by the Messiah Himself.  If that is so, then the dilemma of the Sabbath can be transformed into a two way street, with ethics illuminating religious practice and Scripture illuminating what we mean by value ethics.




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Moses and Monotheism: The rationalization of faith and theological divergence between Judaism and Christianity

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 5, 2019

The Problem Stated

This article “Moses and Monotheism” is intended as one contribution within what will hopefully be a series of articles on the original schism, from the first century CE onward, within the religion of the Bible, a schism which led to the development of two systems of religion, one called Christianity and the other called Judaism.   It will be taken as axiomatic that the religion of the apostles (including the apostle Paul) was one Jewish sect among many, and arguably the most promising at the time.  It is not important what we call this original, integral faith, as any number of names could be suggested, such as the “church of Yakob (brother of Jesus/Yeshua)”, the “Mother church of Jerusalem/Yerusalayim”, the “Ebionites” or whatever.   For a variety of reasons, from a very early point in the history of the Jesus movement, forces began to exert themselves pulling the faith in diametrically opposed directions.

Over the centuries the systems called Christianity and Judaism became increasingly distinct and alienated from one another.  This process of divergence continued until, as some would maintain, the time of the European enlightenment (17th, 18th centuries CE) after which some movements towards partial convergence began to appear.  Yet today the issues of “who owns the Bible” or rather, has a right to interpret it, remains tense and chaotic.  Obviously the question involves a vast array of issues which need to be separated and treated in detail.  Methodological materialists will maintain that the salient factors were invariably those concerned with politics and ethnicity.  I don’t deny that these factors were crucial in historical development, however these essays are intended to be contributions to the history of ideas.  What, we wonder, was the content of faith among the various groups claiming to be the people of God.  To the extent that these ideas were similar, we presume convergence, while to the extent the content of faith differed, we presume divergence among the different communities.  Ideas have consequences.

Although this author is not a supporter of the theory of evolution, evolutionary metaphor has become ubiquitous in our language, and can be used with advantage to describe the historical movement of religious thought and practice.  In evolutionary terms, I suggest that the Judaism/Christianity distinction did not result from a sudden discontinuous jump, or what scholars call a “saltation.”  In tacit testimony to the weakness of the original theory, many evolutionary biologists today endorse a theory of “saltations” or punctuated evolution in which new species appeared through sudden mutation and immediately flourished.  Analogously, the split between Judaism and Christianity is frequently described as issuing from a once and forever bill of divorce, although the timing of the split (was it at Pentacost, or the council of Jerusalem…or as late as Nicea?) depends on where each particular historian locates the “saltation.”

Conversely, the view of doctrinal divergence found here resembles the older theories of evolution, which depicted the gradual separation of species over vast periods of time.  Although different in both substance and time-scale, the gradual drifting apart of Christianity and Judaism can be described in similar evolutionary language.  Possession of common scriptures ensured that there would forever be some common denominator within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However theological and intellectual developments (among others) tended to polarize and distance the core doctrines of the two systems.  Judaism and Christianity were further apart in the year 800 CE than they had been in 400 CE, and further apart in 1800 CE than in 1100 CE.  This pulling apart of a common Judeo-Christian heritage and identity was not necessarily the consequence of animus or ill-will on either side, although it was certainly set against a civilizational background of increasing animosity.  For here I am not speaking of polemics between Christians and Jews, but rather doctrinal disputes within each of the religious systems, in which the victorious opinion nearly always resulted in a consensus which was increasingly opposed to the parallel and ongoing consensus of the other religious system.  To give a significant example, we can imagine a world in which the iconoclasts (“icon breakers”) had carried the day in the 8th c. CE among orthodox Christians.  However it was their theological adversaries, the iconodules (“icon lovers”), who actually won.  The dispute had little to do with Jews or Judaism, however the victory of the iconodules removed Christian beliefs and practices even further from those of Judaism.

Rather than being a simple morality play starring theological villains, the gradual ripping apart of a Judeo-Christian theological consensus was frequently the result of well-intended attempts to purify doctrine either on the Jewish or the Christian side.  Working with significantly different initial premises, the substantial gap between Jewish and Christian religious thought was accentuated as religious thinking became more explicit.  Thus notions common to Christians and Jews, notions such as Creation, Sin, Redemption, and Messiah, which from the outsider standpoint of pagans, witnessed to such a strong family resemblance between the two faiths…these very notions, subject to doctrinal analysis and elaboration, became the most divisive issues  of all.

One final, and supremely important caveat is in order.  This is not an essay on soterology.  Religions may “evolve” but the choice to give one’s allegiance to a Messiah is an either/or choice.  The best analogy for this Messianic choice would be from secular politics, e.g., an individual choosing or rejecting a candidate for office in the voting booth, which is a demonstrated, instantaneous, choice.  Conversely, the discussion which follows, according to the political analogy, would resemble the ex post constitutional legitimation of a particular electoral result, which might entail a discussion of political norms as they developed through time.  Thus while these issues are intimately related, the one concerns a single, instantaneous act, while the other describes a process transpiring through an extended period.  Furthermore, the first concerns the actions of individuals, and the second the moral and doctrinal consensus of faith communities.  Hence from a soterological point of view, yes, there was an instantaneous split between Jews who accepted and Jews who rejected Yeshua ha-Mochiah in the First Century CE.  Here however we are talking about the evolution of Christianity and Judaism into two separate religions, something which required time.  Furthermore, in this essay, I will not be focusing on the initial estrangement, but on the work of one Jewish philosopher who at a much later period of time played  a major part in sealing the split and rendering it irreconcilable.

There was no Moses like Moses until Moses

For my own ideosyncratic reasons I am going to highlight Moses Maimonides who can be located well past the mid-way point in the divergence between Judaism and Christianity.  Maimonides was a polymath who wrote extensively on medicine, Jewish law, and philosophy.  Here we will be focusing on his philosophical and theological opinions, and in particular his critique of anthropomorphism.  I will be supporting the thesis that the Maimonidean critique of anthropomorphism, whether or not it was consciously aimed at Christianity, had the net effect of driving Judaism and Christianity further apart.  As a result of post-Maimonidean theology,  today we have alternate taxonomies of Judaism within the field of comparative religion.  According to one taxonomy, Judaism-Islam represent parallel continuations of the primitive Abrahamic faith.  In the alternative taxonomy, Judeo-Christian religion is seen as a continuum based on shared scriptures.  Arguably the first view has attained majority status.  For example, Gordon Melton’s encyclopedia of American faiths, after starting with “Roman Catholicism” as its initial entry, places “Judaism-Islam” in its own chapter, unrelated to any Christian sects.  Such a placement is jarring to students who are familiar with the use of “Judeo-Christian” in American political rhetoric, but justified according to the Maimonidean reform of Jewish theology which was initiated around the 12th century CE.

Why Maimonides?  Like most religions, Judaism denies that it has developed in principle, while maintaining a scrupulous record of its own development, even giving names to the successive generations of rabbis who have contributed to the refinement of law, doctrine, and custom.  However within this smooth arc of development, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) represents something of a discontinuity.  Although many factors contribute to his unique celebrity within the history of both orthodox and extra-orthodox Judaism, his status as the originator of “Jewish theology” is the salient factor within the context of the present discussion.  Here too, the title of “Father of Jewish Theology” would be misleading, since obviously Jews have been arguing about theological ideas since the revelation on Sinai.  What is unique to Maimonides, and which shaped philosophical and theological discussion in subsequent generations, was rendering hitherto tacit theological opinions explicit.  Prior to Maimonides there was no attempt to draw up a Jewish creed with the kind of unequivocal clarity which characterized the Nicean creed of trinitarian Christianity.   The creed of Maimonides was not only first, but set the standard for similar attempts by subsequent Jewish philosophers, none of which ever supplanted it in popularity among Jewish communities.  Likewise  The Guide for the Perplexed was his attempt to hammer out precise ideas on a variety of topics related to theology and philosophy.  Since it concerned a leading issue of the day, i.e., the relation of science (a.k.a., Aristotle) to religion, it became an instant classic.   Today it is more honored than read, yet the effect of the Guide on both Jewish and world thought is incalculable.

Of the various chapters in the Guide, none have been more celebrated among both Christians and Jews than those which focus on the issue of anthropomorphism. Always anxious to distance themselves from what were considered the “crudities” of the so-called “Old Testament”  the Scholastics of the the middle ages were happy to find a rabbi who endorsed the allegorical treatment of embarrassing passages within scripture.  In the Christian world Maimonides was well received qua philosopher, though of course not as a Jewish apologist.  Since church doctrine was divided between Theology and Christology, the Scholastics were able to appropriate the insights of Maimonides in the former field while ignoring their implications for the latter.  The high middle ages witnessed the heyday of “negative theology” and many thinkers of that time were convinced that it was both safer and truer to define God according to what He was not rather than making any positive attributions to the Godhead.  In this rarified atmosphere the anti-anthropomorphism of Maimonides found great favor.  However this appreciation fell short of genuine intellectual  convergence, which was rendered moot since Christian anthropomorphism had simply, and quite properly, migrated from the field of Theology (“What is God?”) to Christology (“Who is Christ?”).  The former question was thought to be resolvable by reflections on abstract philosophy and the laws of nature, (“realism” according to the nomenclature of the time) while the latter question was only resolvable according to direct experience of concrete things and events (again, according to the nomenclature of the time, this was called “nominalism.”  Parenthetically, the Protestantism of a later time would grow out of this “nominalism”).  Accordingly, the insights of Maimonides were utilized in the first field and ignored in the latter.

In contrast to this generally favorable appreciation of Maimonides among the Scholastics, his thought became an instant bone of contention among his fellow Jews, at least in so far as they had strong convictions in theology and philosophy.  While respected as a rabbi and physician, no sooner was the Guide published than the Jewish world became divided between Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans.  This philosophical and theological division persists, albeit in a very low key manner, even today, in spite of a general desire to paper over the fine points and present Jewish, or at least orthodox, thought as an integral whole.

The older Jewish Theology (a.k.a., Kabbalah)

What was so objectionable to Maimonides, that the publication of his tome would spark a storm of criticism among his fellow rabbis?  The theological clarification which Maimonides sought to bestow on his faith community was viewed by many as an innovation, not as a restatement of tradition.  The tacit, and in part underground theology which had characterized Judaism up to Maimonides was more or less equivalent to what we would today call the speculative Kabbalah, albeit a Kabbalah prior to the publication of its standard text, the Zohar, not to mention much else of what is categorized as “Kabbalah” today.  Indeed, it is perilous to bring up a discussion of Kabbalah in the context of a discussion of theology, since the very term suggests dubious and irrelevant topics such as mysticism, magic, and even occultism.

What is salient in the context of the present discussion, is that the older Jewish theology (whether or not we call it “kabbalistic”) had a much more flexible conception of the Godhead than was latter allowed for in the exoteric, post-Maimonidean, discussions of Jewish theology.  The God of the earlier rabbis was a God capable of corporal interactions with human beings (or at least with prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs).  With the rise of Aristotelian philosophy around the 12cCE, and its tendency to subject all truth claims to logical analysis, anthropomorphic depictions of the Godhead were placed under increasing scrutiny by the “enlighteners” of the age.  Indeed, a parallel might be drawn between the enlightenment of the high middle ages and that of the 18th century CE.  In both cases religious traditions came under scathing criticism.

None the less, there were major differences between the Aristotelian enlightenment of the 12th century and the secular Enlightenment of the 18th century.   Unlike the latter day European secularists, Western philosophers in the 12th century, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim were generally pious members of their respective faith communities, who earnestly sought a reconciliation between religion and reason.  In some cases (Aquinas, Maimonides) they seem to have been satisfied with the fruits of their reconciliation.   In other cases, notably among the Christian followers of Ibn Rushid (Averroes), they threw up their hands in resignation, allowing science and religion to proceed on parallel tracks.  However all the philosophers of that age seem to have earnestly desired to preserve the essence of faith from groundless attacks of reason, or at least “reason” as defined by Aristotelian philosophy.

Naturally the advocates of the older theologies preferred a wholesale rejection of Aristotelian thought to a reconciliation.  In their view, the knowledge of God among the faithful was being threatened by  the incursion of a barbaric and simplistic rationalism.  No where was this reaction more bitter than in those Jewish communities which rejected the philosophical works of Maimonides.  While the followers of Maimonides fought under the banner of a consistent and philosophically purified monotheism, their adversaries held out for a literal, indeed super-literal, interpretation of scripture, according to “drash” i.e., flexible interpolation of additional information into scripture using a literalist method of extracting more data from the text itself.    Over the centuries this method had gradually built up a body of theological ideas, although these ideas were held only tacitly among the Jewish community at large, being handed down explicitly among a restricted group of tradition-transmitters (i.e., a secret, or crypto-theology, in other words, a “kabbalah”).

Much of this crypto-theology was couched in blatantly anthropomorphic terms, which bordered on the fantastic.  God not only had a body, but that body was said to be half again the size of the universe.  To give another charming anthropomorphism various aspects of the universe were explained as emanations from the hairs of God’s beard.  For all the differences between Jews and Christians, it is interesting to note that their respective theologians both agreed that God had a beard.  For the Kabbalists it was the cosmic beard of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal emanation of humanity out of the Divine Essence.  Likewise, for the Church Fathers it was the beard on the face of the Second Adam, appearing in history as Jesus of Nazareth.  Whatever else might have been at issue, up until the time of Maimonides, anthropomorphism remained a point of contact within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However, it was only a point of contact, not a point of convergence.  Jewish crypto-theology (whether we call it “kabbalah” or something else) was profoundly synthetic, incorporating as much as possible within the Godhead.  In contrast, the Christian theologies were analytic, observing the aforesaid distinctions between Theology and Christology, eternity and history, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the nominal.

Yet for all their differences in both method and substance, Christian and Jewish thought retained strong family resemblances.  Compared to philosophy, or even the simplicity of Islam, this family resemblance might be summed up, for want of a more dignified word, as “messiness.”  The messiness of both Christianity and Judaism, with their logical perplexities and multi-layered messages, can only be justified on the grounds that we live in a messy universe with messy problems, and perhaps the answers to these problems require more than an elegant rationalism or the judicious application of Occam’s razor.  Furthermore, at the very heart of this messiness lies anthropomorphism.  Thus throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures we find the overlapping and intermingling of the divine presence and human existence, often both depicted in corporal form.  Indeed, the Bible may be viewed as a textual tableaux suggestive of the soft, flowing figures in a Chagal canvass.  Moderns repulsed by Biblical messiness, like Spinoza, have tended to forsake the church and the synagogue, and hence proceeding to write their own bibles, philosophical manifestos which reconstructed the universe according to principles of geometrical clarity, lucid but dead.

In spite of some novel opinions voiced in recent times by a school of obtuse commentators, I don’t think the latter-day infidelity of the moderns can be laid at the doorstep of Maimonides.  He was an “enlightener” in the 12th, not the 18th century sense of the word.  Accordingly, his intent in the Guide was to purify monotheism, not abolish it.  His linguistic and logical critique of anthropomorphism is both elegant and convincing, and provides an excellent “donkey bridge” for the safe passage of erstwhile atheists into faith, especially those who are apt to be offended by the concreteness and particularity of the Bible.

However in spite of the brilliance of the Guide, like the noontime brilliance which can either illuminate or bring on sunstroke, the work had both positive and negative effects.  The rejection of anthropomorphism, by necessity, tended to distance God from intimacy with his creations, at least his human creations.  Of course Maimonides was aware of this, and in the context of his thought the intimacy of the Divine-human nexus was retained through an intensified emphasis on the prophets and prophecy.  Here we are not critiquing the philosophy of Maimonides per se or inquiring whether this theory of prophecy was an adequate replacement for anthropomorphism.  Rather, we are looking at the effect of the Maimonides-inspired Aristotelian turn in Jewish theology, and to what extent it further distanced Judaism from Christianity.

The elephant in the living room, so to speak, is that this turn towards rationalism empowered Jewish philosophers to present their doctrine as the purest form of monotheism among the three competing Abrahamic faiths.  (N.B., Maimonides had very different objections to Islamic theology, which are only indirectly relevant to the issues considered here.)  Conversely, this implied that Christian trinitarian theology was either borderline or outright tri-theism.  Without taking sides on this issue one way or the other (after all, there seem to have been some actual tri-theists in the history of Christian theology) clearly this newly rationalized Judaism found itself at an even further remove from its Christian cousin.  A clear cut monotheism now confronted the “messy” or at least difficult to comprehend, trinitarian doctrine of the Christian theologians.

In retrospect, how different this was from times when the various schools teaching a speculative Kabbala dominated the heart of the Jewish world view.  That was a world-view in which God could still be manifest through various faces (partsufim) according to the aspect of the world addressed by the Creator.  It differed from Christianity in one essential respect, none of the faces bore the name of Yeshua-ha-Mochiach.  As long as the old theology prevailed the issue between Judaism and Christianity remained a kind of judicial proceeding which the issue of contention was the identity of the Messiah.  After Maimonides this became less of a judicial than a metaphysical contention, thus raising the doctrinal tension between Christianity and Judaism to a higher level.

The motivations of Moses Maimonides

To settle the matter in a morally satisfying way, we need to conclude by asking ourselves whether this further distancing of Judaism from Christianity in and after the 12cCE was an unintentional effect of rationalized faith, or whether it was the intended result of a project initiated by Maimonides himself.  According to my present understanding, it was indeed an unintentional effect, and not a deliberate aim.  If we can fathom the motives of Maimonides in sharpening and deepening the philosophical understanding of Jewish monotheism, then we ought to be able to glean some support for this opinion.  Therefore lets look at some possible motivations.

First one must consider whether this distancing from Christian theology was motivated by the low esteem in which Maimonides held the “founder of the Christian religion.”  It is no secret that Maimonides held Jesus, or “Yeshu” responsible for setting in motion forces which led to the destruction of the Second Temple forty years after his ministry.  Maimonides “Yeshu” who is portrayed as a hasty and ill-informed zelot, is in some sense (at least to this writer) a more interesting figure than the effeminate and defeatist “Jesus” whom people sometimes misapprehend from church teachings.  Both are misrepresentations of the actual Yeshua-ha-Moshiach a.k.a., Jesus of Nazareth, who is testified to in the gospels.  However we can hardly imagine that Maimonides constructed his theology in reaction to a person for who he had so little regard or interest in.  Those particular individuals whom Maimonides felt either to be, or not to be the Messiah, is an irrelevancy here.  One of his primary objectives was to remove the issue of “Messiah” from the sphere of metaphysical speculation and make it a purely historical question.  In this sense, yes, he distanced Jewish theology further from Christianity, but in a broader sense he also contradicted the speculative ideas about the Messiah found throughout the older “kabbalistic” theology, and thus modified the criteria for not just for Yeshua, but for rival candidates throughout history, many of whom (contrary to Maimonides) viewed the office of Messiah as having supernatural as well as secular significance.

A second and related possibility is that Maimonides sought to distance his philosophy from Christian speculation since he disdained the Christian world as barbaric in contrast to Judeo-Moslem civilization of Spain and the southern Mediterranean.  This is suggested by the equivalence monotheists=civilization, polytheists=barbarism, where alleged tri-theism places the Christian religion into the unenviable category of polytheism.   Indeed, this was the consequence of Maimonides’ philosophy, both in what we would today call “comparative religion” as well as within subsequent Rabbinical law (hallacha) in so far as it followed his teaching.  However a consequence does not prove a motive.  While Maimonides viewed, correctly, European technology, science, and hygiene as inferior to that of the Islamic world of the 12th century, there is no evidence that his thought was primarily motivated by an attempt to refute or react to contemporary Christian teaching.  Oddly, one Christian thinker whom he engaged in a constructive way was John Philoponus, a theologian who actually pushed the boundaries of trinitarian thought in a tri-theistic direction.

The third possibility is in some sense an inversion of the second.  Plausibly, Maimonides was motivated in his philosophy to approach and apply the stringent Islamic standards of monotheism.  Indeed, the Guide treats extensively of Islamic philosophers and theologians.  However it is important to make a distinction here.  In so far as the muslim thinkers he references were philosophers in the strict sense (Aristotelians) he engages them in an appreciative, indeed an appropriating way.  However Maimonides’ treatment of muslim theologians is consistently critical.  While detailed treatment of this criticism would take us far from the topic of our discussion, suffice to say that Maimonides had no interest in simply appropriating muslim monotheism and applying it to Jewish theology.

What, then, motivated Maimonides to reject the older “proto-kabbalistic” Jewish theology in favor of a more stringent monotheism?  Fortunately there is a plausible and obvious answer to this question.  A stricter monotheism was mandated by philosophy itself, or at least “philosophy” as it was universally understood at the time of Maimonides.  It must be understood that this so-called “Aristotelian” philosophy was actually a synthesis of Neo-Platonism with the Aristotelian cannon.  Neo-Platonism offered not just a system of idealism, but a strongly unified world view, in which the cosmos was understood as emanating out of a singularity, a transcendent One.

Hence, out of a desire to unify philosophy and theology, Maimonides instituted a more stringently monotheistic doctrine.  Jewish thinking had always been monotheistic, with its ultimate root in the Shema itself, the “Hear Israel…” and its ensuing profession of the unity of God.  However the word for oneness ehad is generally understood to indicate a composite oneness, i.e., a unification of parts.  Authorized by this “liberal” understanding of the Shema, not to mention many other passages of the Torah, the older Jewish doctrine of God felt comfortable describing various faces and attributes of Deity, almost as if they were distinct parts, albeit combined.  Under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Maimonides posited the oneness of God as a singularity, an absolute unity that is impossible to analyze.  Indeed, a unity so absolute that it rendered it impossible to talk about God, except in negative language as “Not many” or “Not having a body” etc..

Within the confines of this essay I am not taking sides with either the older Jewish theology or the post-Maimonidean rationalism which partially replaced it in the 12th and subsequent centuries CE.  However I trust that it has been made clear how the older theology was much more compatible with its Christian counterpart.  Even today, superficial encounters between mainstream Jewish and Christian thinkers are initially framed in terms of the strict monotheism of the former and the loose anthropomorphism of the latter.  However when one penetrates beyond the outer “Maimonidean” layer of religious doctrine, the differences are no longer so clear cut.  Naturally, there are disincentives to immersing one’s thought in these deeper Kabbalistic levels of thought, in so far as deceptive systems of magic and occultism have been grafted onto the Kabbalistic synthesis.  However at the core of the Kabbalah is a soft, or “liberal” monotheism, a monotheism which allows for the incorporation of both unity and particularity into the Godhead.  Arguably, the remains of this pre-Maimonidean doctrine points back to a primitive theology antecedent to the split between Judaism and Christianity.  In that sense the Maimonidean reform, however well intended,  has for eight centuries blocked the way back to an integral  Judeo-Christian restoration.

Maimonides in retrospect

Since one consequence of his system was a further separation of Judaism and Christianity, Maimonides would be worthy of a critical reading on that ground alone.  However there are many reasons for giving Maimonides a respectful reading, readings which are not necessarily restricted to historical or critical treatments.  Ironically, the same philosopher who contributed to the estrangement of the two religious systems, may also be a rabbi instrumental in their convergence.  Maimonides was also an innovator in the field of law, being among first and most significant thinker to depart from purely formal transmission of ordinances (hachallot) in preference to their logical/moral foundations.  This foundational approach to Torah, which abjures thoughtless repetition of form for an appropriation of genuine meaning an understanding, is suggestive of the kind of innovation necessary to the restoration of an integral Judeo-Christianity.  Such a restored Judeo-Christianity is likely to take its stand in a space somewhere between the hyperformalism of Jewish orthodoxy and antinomianism which is rampant due to abuse of grace in the church.  If so, the influence of Maimonides, hitherto a force for divergence, may be a future source of convergence.



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Too many Jesuses…not enough Jesus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 27, 2018

Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man

Everybody loves Jesus, but do they love the right Jesus?   If Jesus is a real individual, then he is just one person among a potentially infinite number of persons.  Our minds are further clouded by an inability to grasp things-in-themselves.  We must make do with images, perceptions, and archetypes which float around in our brains and attempt to match each to the thing signified.  Obviously not everyone named Jesus, film directors, prize fighters, chefs etc, mostly, but not always, Hispanic, is our Jesus of faith.  Or to  mention a more plausible confusion, keep in mind that there were at least eleven men named Jesus (Yashua) in the history of the Jewish wars recorded by Josephus.  Will the real Jesus stand up?

While only a simpleton would mistake any random person with the name of Jesus for Jesus of Nazareth, there is a more serious confusion over the personality of Jesus.  Any number of false Christs have been offered up for adoration by the devotees of modernity.   Some of them even bear an alleged physical resemblance to Jesus.  Among these, let’s pick out Che Guevara and the Zig Zag man for special attention.  Apart from the fact that one was a historical character and the other a commercial logo, we can consider them both archetypes of what many consider (mistakenly) to be Christ-like-ness.

Thus we have Che Guevara murdering his way across Latin America in search of social justice.  No doubt this is very attractive to certain kinds of people, and Che had his own justification for his thoughts and deeds.  However to interpret Jesus of Nazareth according to the archetype of a Marxist revolutionary is, frankly, an abomination.  Jesus, unlike Che, was not a class-theorist.  Certainly Jesus empathized with the poor and recognized the class divisions of his own day, but he never indicated that justice is subjective to one’s class position, or that the means justifies the end in a class struggle.

I was never big on Che, but I must confess to having a soft spot for the Zig Zag man.  In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the Zig Zag man adorns packages of cigarette wrappers intended for impromptu use by smokers of tobacco and other substances.  The Zig Zag man, or something like him, is many people’s Jesus of choice.  Many of us want to roll our own religion, the primary ingredient of which is an easy-going Jesus who saves and then leaves us on our own. That’s the Jesus of no hassles and not getting on anyone’s case.  I infinitely prefer him to the moralistic, murdering Che, but both are equally false.


The mind of the true Jesus is the mind of Torah

Che and the Zig Zag guy are amusing straw men, and you don’t have to be much of a theologian to poke holes in those who take them as their “Jesus.”  But the problem of the pseudo-Jesus goes back deep into the early centuries of Christian faith.  Che, the Zig Zag man, and all the other false Christs of modernity are the grandchildren of Gnosticism.  There is only one true Jesus, but there are many Gnostic christs.  This proliferation of christs comes from the Gnostic rejection of the Hebrew scriptures.

That is why we cant just regurgitate the slogan “the true Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible.”  In the minds of many people today “The Bible” for all practical purposes consists of nothing more than the books from Matthew to Revelation.  Like the ancient Gnostics, they have excised the so-called “Old Testament” from their religion, and as a consequence they have created their own out-of-context Christs.  The ancient Gnostics were more consistent in their treatment of scripture.  They didn’t just excise the Old Testament they demonized it.  Their Jesus was a Jesus at war against the Creator, whom they considered at best a fool, and at worst malevolent.

Hence, from a Gnostic point of view, the Gospel must be seen as antithetical to, instead of fulfilling, the Torah.  Logically, this would lead to a trans-valuation of values and an inverted decaloge, to wit

Hate God, idolize, curse, work without intermission, disrespect parents, kill, steal, lie, cheat, envy…all these in the imperative, mind you.

While this kind of explicit antinomianism was rare, even in ancient Gnosticism, many of the psuedo-Jesus idols of modernity, up to and including Che and the Zig Zag man, are based on severing Torah from Gospel.  Unless we know Torah, we simply don’t understand what the motivations of Jesus were in the Gospel accounts.  The Gospel records actions.  From a Gnostic viewpoint the purpose of the actions was to liberate humanity from Torah.  From a Christian point of view the purpose was to pay the penalty which humanity had already incurred by breaking Torah.  Simply having the Gospel account doesn’t inform us fully as to which of these motivations underpin the actions of Jesus.  However if we understand the mind of Jesus as the mind revealed in Torah, then we know who the real Jesus is.  He is one with his Father in Heaven, not the antagonist of the Creator.




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The Good Pharisee: Meditations on Nicodemus

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 9, 2018

What was a Pharisee?  The backstory behind Christianity’s favorite religious rogue gallery

The word Pharisee has long been established as a term of abuse in Christian circles.  It does not appear as an explicitly negative term in the Gospels, but whenever Pharisees enter the story they usually serve as a foil for the actions and teachings of Jesus.  From this the most likely interpretation is that the Pharisees are either fools or villains or most likely both.   An additional historical complication arises from the fact that the Pharisees are the undisputed predecessors of all later forms of orthodox Judaism.  The hagiography contained in Pirke Avot features the same individuals who appear (albeit anonymously) as the bad guys in the Gospels.

Spoiler alert!  I am stating my conclusion right up front: Jesus was himself a Pharisee.  I am neither alone nor original in holding this view.  The statement is only shocking because of the negative connotations which have clustered around the word “Pharisee” as derived from the Gospels.  Naturally I (and the scholars who uphold this view) don’t mean that Jesus was a hypocrite or a villain.  Rather Jesus split off from a particular school of Judaism, and that happened to be the school of the Pharisees.

To see the plausibility of this thesis, look at what has frequently happened to modern social and political movements when they split, one group taking the name and the other the substance of the movement’s ideology.  Hear the vitrolic way that conservatives use the word “liberal” and you would never guess that conservatives (at least American conservatives) were the original liberals, a word which once signified free enterprise, small government, and the writings of John Locke.  At the other end of the spectrum we read about Vladmir Lenin “fighting against the socialists” …which would be quite confusing of we didn’t know the historical context of the Bolshevick/Menshevick split, and that the former renamed themselves the communists in order to signal  a purer and more aggressive form of socialism.

Given the historical context, it should be understandable that Jesus fought more often and more vigorously against the Pharisees than anyone else, precisely because we generally fight against those who are closest to us, and not in just a geographical sense.  We fight against those with whom we share our basic principles, since we know enough about their minds that we can have a worthwhile disagreement with them.  There were many other ethnic and ideological groups present in first century Palestine.  Somehow or other, it is always the Pharisees that Jesus is running into.  This is no accident.

A typology of religious attitudes

We can use the groups present on the historical scene during the generation of Jesus ( on his human side) to understand the broader religious choices which have been available to humanity before, then, and ever since.  One could endlessly ponder the particulars of the Pharisees as a religious movement, but for purposes of application to our own spiritual struggles it might be better to look at the contrasting world views which characterize the Pharisees, their opponents, and each of their moral equivalents in other generations.   This simplification leaves out a lot, but it gets to the heart of the matter.  We can distill the essence of religious life down to a few types.

The wicked believe in neither God nor Torah

The Greeks, believe in God without the Torah, (a.k.a. the “unknown God” the many gods, or the god of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.)

The Sadduccies believe in the Torah but not in God.

The Samaratains believe in God and a defective Torah

The Pharisees believe in both God and Torah

It should be fairly obvious which group Jesus lines up with.  None the less, there seems to be a problem with the Pharisees.  We might guess that they had some sort of problem even if we didn’t know about their  numerous run-ins with the John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles.  It is not a problem with the ideals of the Pharisees, who’s name meant “separate”…in the sense of separate from their surrounding Hellenistic social environment.  Perhaps they weren’t separate enough.  That was the view of the Essene sect which went to great length in forming an alternative society.  Was that also the view of Jesus?

Not necessarily.  Remember that Jesus was accused of being more lax than John the Baptist, who was probably an Essene.  John and the Essene sectaries lived in the wilderness, but Jesus was willing to go into town and fellowship with urban dwellers, Pharisees in particular.  One gets the impression that Jesus was willing to take Pharisee life and practice (their “Torah”) as an initial baseline for godly living.  The major problem wasn’t that the Pharisee interpretation of the Torah was too lax or too strict, although Jesus was forthright in offering a different interpretation of halacha (i.e., rules for the walk of life) when called upon to do so.  No, it is something more fundamental than a disagreement of halachic particulars (for example, whether or not healing is permitted on the Sabbath) however important those might be.


Fortunately we have a concrete example of a good Pharisee, a Pharisee to whom Jesus could divulge his full council.    In the encounter with Nicodemus we glimpse the fundamental deficiency which rendered the walk of the Pharisees out of accord with Jesus, and by implication, with God.  This deficiency was the failure of the Pharisees to be Pharisees in the sense defined above, those who putatively believe in both God and the Torah.  It was a failure in terms of the standards which the Pharisees had set for themselves.

In visiting Jesus under the cover of night, Nicodemus was out of alignment with at least one of the two axiomatic principles of the Pharisees.  Whatever the quality of his Torah observance might have been, Nicodemus was deficient in faith towards God.  We know this because he feared men more than his Creator.  He demonstrates this visiting Jesus under the cover of night.  At this point, Nicodemus may not even recognize Jesus as Messiah.  However he knows that Jesus is “of God”…perhaps a prophet.

Yet he fears the opinions of men.  Is this what it means to believe in God and Torah?  What about “not having any idol in front of my face” as the first of the “ten words” would have it?  Belief in God doesn’t mean just understanding the concept of God, it means a living faith in God.  So is Nicodemus, who is perhaps the best of all the Pharisees, even a Pharisee himself?  Is he not a crypto-Sadducean, an atheist who conforms to Torah outwardly?

You Must Be Born From Above

Herein lies the embarrassment of Nicodemus.  He seems to have been convinced that Jesus was, if not God, at least the voice of God in his own generation, otherwise the highly respected Pharisee would not have taken the trouble to pay a visit to the upstart rabbi.  Yet he visits Jesus at night, thus testifying that for him the wrath of men is more to be feared than the power of God.  Hence Nicodemus reveals himself to be an atheist, if not in theory, at least in practice.  In some respects he is worse off than the Saducees who winked at the idea of a living God, but who, like Voltaire centuries later, understood that a facade of divinely sanctioned morality (Torah) was necessary for the functioning of society.  At least the Sadducees and kindred thinkers are only in the business of deceiving others, not themselves. In contrast, Nicodemus desperately wants to believe in God, and not just the cosmic god of the Saducees and Aristotle, but a living God who concerns himself with the welfare of His creatures.  Yet the fear of Nicodemus overcomes his faith.  As the first words in the Decalogue put the matter, he allows the face of human power to interpose itself between his soul and its creator.

Jesus, sensing this fear in the heart of Nicodemus, derails the interview by an appeal to fundamentals.  It is not that Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo some mystical initiation into  a higher life.  This has been the standard interpretation of much of evangelical Christianity for the last three hundred years.  In a way it is much simpler than that.  Jesus is implicitly asking Nicodemus, “Do you, or do you not believe in God and the promises of God?”  It is not a matter of grasping the concept “God” or having a historical knowledge that made promises at certain times and in certain places.  Rather, do you trust in this God and order your life accordingly?  Nicodemus doesn’t trust God to protect him from men, but relies instead on the darkness of night.  He behaves the way any frightened creature would.  He normal,  being no more than a typical creature of God.  In order to go beyond normal, he would have to be procreated, and not just created, by God.  He would have to partake in God’s attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.  Then he would no longer fear anything.  Isn’t that what we would all like?

Before the Cross

There may have been many good Samaritans, but there was only one good Pharisee, Jesus of Nazareth.  All the others were to some extent impostors.  The failure was so total that, after the Pharisees split with Jesus and the apostles, the type flipped over into its anti-type.  The word Pharisee, which originally denoted righteousness and sanctification, has come to mean a hypocrite, a make-believer rather than a true believer.  Although “Pharisee” is a useful term of abuse for any bully pulpit, if we want to approach the matter as a serious historical study, we will need to take a more empathetic view.  Then perhaps we will discover that the Pharisees are more deserving of our pity than our condemnation.

Compared to the Sadducees the Pharisees were probably a pretty stressed out group.  As a sect, the Sadducees were in the business of deceiving others, not themselves.  They reasoned that there was little harm in adopting bit of Greek culture.  The people of the country could be introduced to the world outside of Judaism bit by bit, reassured by nominal adherence to the  Torah.  Beyond the amiable conversation common to moderates everywhere, the Sadducees must have shared the secret joy of conspirators who know they are “pulling a fast one” on the general public.  Jewish on the outside, Greek on the inside.  Is not variety the spice of life?

In contrast to the genial secularism of the Sadducees, the Pharisees must have been bad company.   Far from being conscious hypocrites, their bane was their own sincerity.  Only sincere people can be stung by the accusation of hypocrisy.  We can safely assume that not just Jesus, but other Pharisees commonly accused one another of hypocrisy.  Unlike the Sadducees they each wanted desperately to keep faith with the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.  Yet each in their own heart knew that they fell short.  Though they were gregarious, their social events must have been haunted by the fear that the mask of belief would be torn from their face by less than generous colleagues.

This contrast between the happy Sadducee and the grim Pharisee is of more than historical interest.  It is a perennial paradox of the spirit.  The higher we set the bar of our spiritual life, the more dissatisfied we become.  Sometimes we become so dissatisfied that we are apt to envy the carefree attitude of stone cold atheistic secularists.  Yet we are wrong to do so, for as David frequently notes in his Psalms…”we can see their end.”

After the Cross

We shouldn’t take the story of Nicodemus and his encounter with Jesus out of context.  The typical evangelical interpretation, that Nicodemus was lacking a special spiritual experience which would have lifted his life onto a higher plane, misses the main point.  Certainly we should strive for spiritual enlightenment and edification.  However the main point is chronological.  Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus prior to the cross.  Moreover, Jesus is not just speaking to Nicodemus, but to all God-believers or wannabe God-believers.  The more sincere one is in striving towards faith the more one falls short, and in frustration things other than God often wind up being more important.  This might be called the Pharisee’s Paradox.

That was before the cross.  After the cross human inability is accounted for and redeemed.  We are all like Nicodemus, apt to wait to the dead of the night to seek God, for fear of the crowd.  As we are filled by the Holy Spirit some of us become bolder, and are willing to proclaim him in the light of day.  Either way, it is no longer a salvation issue, since God knows our weaknesses, and even, or especially, the weakness of our faith.  It is the weakness of a child, not a bond servant, and is pardoned.  Pardoned and often indulged, on the understanding that we can do better, and will be helped to do better.

Like Nicodemus we are apt to put the face of man between our soul and the face of our creator.  However our creator understands this because he is our procreator as well, and knows our souls from the inside out.  This is already foretold in the Torah and the Prophets.  When David incurred God’s wrath by enumerating the Israelites in a census he was given the choice of whether to suffer at the hand of human beings or of God.  He chose to suffer from God out of fear of human beings.  God permits this, although it would seem to go against the criticism of Nicodemus mentioned previously.  Here we have the two fears stood on their head, as it were,  since here fear means the opposite of love, not a synonym for respect.  Hence the fears of David, and by implication our fears as well, are rendered licit by a merciful God.  This is not to say that it is good to fear, even to fear evil.  Rather one should laugh at fear in derision.  However, until we are able to do that, God is a loving parent and understands.

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Jesus, teacher of the full Torah

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 20, 2018


…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.

Posted in Christian Education, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Hermenutics, Kabbalah, Paleoconservativism, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The pre-history of Leftism in Christian heresy

Posted by nouspraktikon on January 21, 2018

What is a “leftist”?

We hear the word “leftist” a lot, but what does it really mean?  Is the left good, or bad, or just ugly? Should we moralize about leftists, and does leftism have an actual history which can be discovered? I heartily embrace the notion that the left/right schematic for understanding politics is a distorting mirror which would best be discarded.  None the less, there was for the last two, or even three hundred years, an identifiable line of thought called “left” first in Europe, then in North America, and then throughout the world.

I do not think the left was always evil.  In that respect it is different from Communism, which may be defined as that tendency within the left towards domination for the sake of domination.  In contrast, it would seem that leftism originally had some motivating ethical ideal, in relation to which politics was only a means to an end.  The ubiquitous yet morally ambivalent nature of leftism has echoed through the chronicles of American popular culture, ranging from the communistic to the comic.  In the 1960s Al Capp, the creator of the Líl Abner cartoon series, introduced a new character into his strip,  Jeannie Phonenei.  Jeannie Phonenei was Capp’s attempt to mock everything which was wrong with the left wing activists of that day: she was a narcissistic hypocrite who drove around in a Mercedes and composed folk songs like “Molotov Cocktails for Two.”

Taking the characterization personally, the celebrated singer and war protester Joan Baez objected to Capp’s sense of humor.   Truly, if Capp had intended to needle the anguished, earnest and (significantly) Christian Joan, it was a cruel joke.  Rather Capp’s jests would have been better aimed at that other siren of the sixties, the opportunistic actress Jane Fonda, who was a professed Communist.  Later it would turn out that she would profess anything, including Christianity.  However Joan Baez was the real deal, not a Communist, but a genuine leftist…whatever that might be.  Yet, even though Communism and Leftism are distinct ideologies, history has repeatedly shown that leftists tend to wind up as the enablers of Communist movements and, ultimately, states.  From their initial position as idealistic activists, they quickly become tools for persons far more cunning and devious than they originally bargained for.  Why is this?  It is a tragedy which has been reenacted numerous times and in sundry places, yet before we review the tragic destiny of leftism, we need to investigate its origins.

Towards a Critique of Pure Goodness

To reiterate, I deny that all leftists are intrinsically evil. Rather, I would have you draw a picture of good people when you think of the early leftists, indeed, of super-good people!   Of course, since we all have become wary of the Hegelian dialectic, from the outset “super-goodness” tends to give us the uneasy feeling of sitting precariously on a Humpty-Dumpty wall of perfection, not only a fragile position, but one containing the seed of its annihilation through the wrath of its contrary.

Leftism, as a self-defined movement, dates only from the French Revolution and the spread of J. J. Rousseau’s secularist, populist notions.  However the ethical roots of leftism go back much deeper, into what we call “Western history” or more properly Christendom.  The West got its start as the remaining crust of Christendom, after Mohammad, the Caliphs, Tammurlane, and the Turks had gobbled up much of Africa and Asia.  Thus the political movements which would later emerge as “the left” were essentially Christian, and only accidentally European, in their origin.

This is not my own hypothesis, or a special theory devised by those among us who are seeking to expose the errors of the left.  To say nothing of Max Weber, this religious pedigree was mooted about proudly by the cultural Marxists themselves, notably Adorno, Horkheimer, and other luminaries of the Frankfort school.  They pointed out that the earliest radical movements in the West were “chiliastic” in nature, or what might be dismissed as outbreaks of mass hysteria premised on a speedy end to the present world and the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth.  Having scant interest in theology, the Frankfort thinkers moved on to develop their ideas about a sociology of knowledge.  From an opposing view, the cognitive content of this early chiliasm was closely examined in the voluminous works of conservative philosopher Erick Voeglin.  Both the Frankfort School and Vogelin concurred that Western radical thought had been initiated as far back as the middle ages, the former lauding these early movements as “chiliasm” while the latter deplored what he termed the persistent “gnosticism” of the West.

Voeglin, a brilliant thinker, was prone to stuff every development in Western thought into his portmanteau term-of-art “gnosticism.”   For Voeglin, and many others, “gnosticism” is the penchant of elites for using esoteric knowledge to control mass movements.  I would agree with Voeglin, that this is the very quintessence of Communism.  However I want to make a clear distinction between Communism and leftism.  If Communism is, as Voeglin proposes, a disease of the mind, perhaps leftism is a disease of the heart.  Therefore, if we look at the Christian pedigree of leftist movements we will have to become theologians.  However it is not the theology of the Trinity, of creation, or of any other metaphysical principle that will concern us.  Rather we will need to take a close look Christian ethics, and especially, heretical Christian ethics.

What the early Church Fathers knew, and Voeglin often omits, is the source of heresy, invariably, the twisting of scripture.  Proof-texts are the bane of theology, but the essential starting point of all heresies.  Thus…

…for him that takes your cloak, forbid not to take your coat also. (Luke 6:29b)

Is a famous “twister” (not to be confused with the party game) that has entertained nudists, naturalists, and sundry Adamites for two millennia.   Of far greater historical significance were the mendicant friars, whose bonfire of vanities were sparked by Francis of Assizi giving away his clothes and walking around town naked until someone thoughtfully provided him with a brown burlap sack, thus instituting the habit of a new order.  This holy striptease might be described as extremism in pursuit of literalism.   To the credit of the order Francis founded, the poverty-loving “spirituals” were quickly purged and the monks got back to what monks do best: working, praying,  and building up vast quantities of tangible, informational, and social capital.

While there is something charming about the voluntary poverty of the friars, the antics of the early Anabaptists were positively horrific.   Before they flipped into their benign opposites, e.g., pacifist Amish and Mennonites, they terrorized reformation-era Europe with the prospect of a perfect commonwealth, (a.k.a., your wealth is mine to share in common) and their “twister” included the more  famous first half of Luke 6:29.

And to him who smite you on the cheek, offer to him the other… (ibid. 29a)

Much as the early Franciscans stripped unbidden by any request from the poor, the pastoral wolves of the fringe reformation were willing to start the smiting, on the understanding that their bullied flocks were honor-bound not to resist.    A city was infiltrated, a monarchy was established under the vicarage of a prophet, and utopia was commenced.  This experiment proved so popular that the citizens welcomed back their previous oppressors with open arms and hung the  prophet on a gibbet….in perpetuity.

Scriptural hermeneutics over superheros

Granted, both the spiritual Franciscans and the early Anabaptists interpreted the scripture in a way that was not just literal but pro-active and extreme.   My contention is that a more passive reading of the texts, though perhaps even more literal, is still socially disastrous in the long run.  Let’s take the example, drawn from countless incidents in real life, of a child who comes home crying because a bully has stolen his or her lunch money.  You and I know both what the reaction of a normal parent would be, so we can skip the pyrotechnics.

However let’s examine the case of a not-so-normal “spiritual” parent.  Little Johnny or Jill comes home to the following comfort.  “Yes, I know you feel bad, but you really should allow that bully to steal from you…it will make you more Christ-like.”  The following day the situation repeats itself.  “Really you shouldn’t cry…every time you are being bullied you are becoming more Christ-like and are bringing your tormentor closer to salvation.”  Where do you think this is likely to end up?  Perhaps, indeed, it will lead to the sanctification (or even martyrdom) of the child and the salvation of the bully.  If J.J. Rousseau is right and all people are benevolent beings who just need to have their non-benevolent inconsistencies pointed out to them…in such a world perhaps this schoolyard tragedy will have a happy ending.  That is not, however, the world portrayed by scripture.

The scriptural passage in referred to above is contained in one of the great ethical discourses of Jesus, the one which extends through Luke v.v. 19-49.  Towards its end it includes the exhortation to “build a house upon a deeply dug foundation, a foundation of rock”(paraphrase v. 48) which might be taken as a hint that this, and other, ethical discourses are in fact parables which compel deep study and interpretation.  Read in the most superficial manner, the ethical discourses seem to enjoin charity, kindness, and goodwill to all our fellow creatures.  Surely there can be no objection to such an interpretation.  However if we meditate on these passages in a more somber vein, we begin to notice the urgency and hyperbolic nature of the sayings, and from this we may surmise that they reflect a unified ethical doctrine, the doctrine of non-resistance to evil.  I have characterized the doctrine of non-resistance to evil as the “doctrine of giving the bully your lunch money” which seems, on the face of it, a moral absurdity.

In the face of moral absurdity, we can either give up and go back to explaining the ethical discourses as “exhortations to charity” or dig even deeper and see if we can uncover anything more solid than the doctrine of non-resistance to evil.  Now it seems to me that we can interpret the ethical discourses in at least four ways: 1) the literal, 2) the spiritual, 3) the historical, or dispensational, and finally 4) the Christocentrc, or Messianic.  Now, my main task in this writing is to critique the ancient Christian origins of the modern left.  Furthermore, I discern a salient connection between the literal interpretation of the ethical discourses and the rise of the left.  Therefore, since we are rejecting the left and not Christianity, an exposition of scripture deeper than the literal is required, especially since the literal interpretation drives the interpreter towards the deadly doctrine of non-resistance to evil.

The immediate alternative to the literal-ethical interpretation is the spiritual interpretation.  If we are indeed vessels of the Holy Spirit we will have an infinite amount of energy, health, and wealth at our disposal.  Thus we will not only be able to give the playground bullies of life all our lunch money, but lead them towards salvation.  Unfortunately this is not an interpretation which is accessible to skeptics who masquerade as Christians, since the only parts of the Bible they take literally are the ethical discourses, and any hint of a reality beyond the flesh  is dismissed as a fairy tale.   Personally, I am overjoyed to assent to all the implications of the spiritual interpretation.  Unfortunately, mere assent does not automatically turn on the spigots of the Spirit.  The actual activation of these powers requires faith, and deepening faith is the work of a lifetime.

The next alternative to the literal interpretation of the ethical discourses is the historical interpretation.  This might also be called the “dispensational” interpretation, albeit the notion of dispensations comes freighted with all sorts of diverse and divisive implications.  None the less, perhaps we can simplify things by limiting ourselves to a transposition of the terms in Luke 6: 29 as they might have been heard c. 30AD by an ear straining for a word of prophecy.

“the smiting”=the Romans

“the other cheek”=lay down your arms, flee to the hills

“giving the outer garment” = let the Romans take Jerusalem

“giving the inner garment”=let the Romans defile the Temple

This is indeed a bitter prophetic brew, however unlike the general doctrine of non-resistance toward evil, it is a particular bitterness in the cup of the Jewish people.  Christ wasn’t rejected because he spoke about the lilies of the field.  Since it is tangential to the purposes of this writing I won’t pursue the historical interpretation any further.

A further alternative to the literal-ethical, and arguably the most on target, is the reading which allows Christ to be speaking self-referentially of his soon-to-be-accomplished Passion.  Again, the same sort of prophetic transposition can be made of the terms which appear in Luke 6:29

“the smiting”=totality of Anti-Messianic forces: Herodians, Pharisees,  Roman government, etc.

“the other cheek”=”Not my will but that of my Father be done!”

“giving the outer garment”=the Kingdom taken away from the people

“giving the inner garment”=the Messiah taken away from Earth

Undoubtedly there are other interpretations, but the addition of these three to the literal-ethical should highlight the parabolic nature of the ethical discourses, teachings which require study and some sort of response, albeit a response which we may have to “dig” to discover, rather than a systematic code of ethics intended to replace the mitzvah of the Old Testament.  Indeed, if these teachings are ethics at all, they are an ethics of crisis, intended to guide the initial band of believers before, during, and perhaps for some time after the Resurrection.  They are not, and this is really the main point, intended as the immutable charter for a sustainable human community.  This should be all the easier to see since the Bible does indeed contain such a charter…the Torah.

Red Letter Bibles and Reds 

The ethical discourses of Christ are indeed the proof tests of the leftist (or liberal, progressive, social, call it what you will) heresy, that grand attempt to re-found and remold the Christian religion.  Just as the peroration on Wisdom in the Proverbs of Solomon provided Arius with a proof-text for Unitarianism, the pretext for Leftism, in a still Christian Europe, was the ethics of Jesus.  Unfortunately this Jesus was not Jesus the Christ, but a Jesus who was a philosopher, seer, wonder-worker and perapatetic prophet.

This was the Jesus of the so-called Enlightenment (18th century and afterwards) and it marked a further worsening of Europe’s moral and religious condition.  In contrast, the spiritual Franciscans and the Anabaptists, whatever their excesses, at least had continued to believe in God and the supernatural.  Their ethical extremism was difficult to constrain, but their heterodoxy could be exposed in conclave with fellow Christians, since they still  operated on a common set of principles, facilitating the escape of wandering sheep from ravenous wolves.

However the atheism of the Enlightenment tended to displace the spiritual center of gravity of all who fell under its influence, even those who continued to profess Christianity.  Whereas the churches had previously treated Christ’s claims to divinity literally and treat the ethical discourses as parables, this polarity was reversed among all who fell under the spell of the Enlightenment.  Now, in metaphysics this view (with no afterlife, judgement or so forth) alternately scandalized and relieved the thinking public, but for ethics the new attitude it was supposed to be an unqualified benefit.  And why not?  At last ethics was liberated from theology.  At last one was free to consider Jesus, not as a savior, but a philosopher, and indeed the best, the most heroic, the purest of all philosophers who ever lived.  It was just the sort of philosophy which might prove capable of uniting all of humanity in a common band of brotherhood.  It was under this banner that the sans-coulotts (a moniker reminiscent of Luke 6:29b!) marched…unfortunately to the guillotine.

Two generations later on we find similar views still attracting followers, even in France where the failure of the Revolution should have been obvious.  Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a monument to a reinvented Christianity where altruistic ethics triumphs over law, theology, and sometimes common sense, yet we still applaud wildly even in the 21st century.  We applaud because Hugo gives us what we want, a feel-good ethics based on the most superficial reading of Christ’s ethical discourses, a reading where Jesus is telling us “be nice”…especially when you encounter the hard-luck cases.  I don’t dispute that this is a correct application of scripture, but I would warn that separation of ethics from theology becomes increasingly perilous the deeper down the philosophical rabbit hole you go.  The saving grace of Hugo was his superficiality as a thinker.  Hugo’s  contemporary, Ernst Renan, pursued the subject more carefully in his Life of Jesus, but stopped before plumbing the full implications of making non-resistance to evil the primary axiom of human life.  Schopenhauer could see further into the abyss, and rejected ethics for aesthetics.  Nietzsche saw even further and decided to join what he deemed the winning side, evil itself.

Until very recently few people have been willing to go “the full Nietzsche.”  The more popular option has been to keep the form while neglecting the substance of Christianity.  This is a gambit with many variations, most of the variations involving indifference and dry formalism.  However, since the Enlightenment and growing in popularity, there has always been a hard core of “atheistic” Christians, deadly serious in their desire to see the Kingdom of God established on Earth.  For these people, were they have to a church, it could only be humanity as a whole, and if they were to have a spirit it would not be the separated and Holy One.  Such people, on the whole, have the appearance of goodness, and significantly they have the scriptures…or at least a part of the scriptures, what Erick Voeglin would call a “qurán.”  In Voeglin’s nomenclature a qurán is a text used to enshrine the principles of a social movement.  Obviously, the Qurán is the qurán of Islam, but the Communist Manifesto is the qurán of Marxism, Interpretation of Dreams is the qurán of Freudianism and likewise for each movement there is more often than not a privileged and authoritative text.

Unsurprisingly this atheistic or liberal Christianity, that very Christianity which is the font and origin of Leftism, has its own qurán.  Yet what makes this movement such a singular phenomenon is that the qurán in question is found in the Bible itself.  To be sure, this qurán is only a fraction of the entire Bible, yet for the atheistic Christian it is the only part of the Bible worth preserving, and as you have no doubt guessed, it consists mainly the the ethical discourses of Jesus.  Another distinctive of this qurán is that it is generally not found bound in a separate codex, but rather is almost always found anthologized with other books of the Bible, though from a purist perspective of an ethical and atheistic Christian these are clearly dutero-cannonical.  Perhaps in the spirit of toleration the liberal and ethical Christian is unwilling to excise such barbarous relics as the book of Genesis or the salacious Song of Songs.

In fact, the only editorially consistent attempt at purifying the ethical qurán of the philosopher Jesus from the dross of Hebraic literature was the work of our own libertarian idol, and all round rock-star, Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson did a heroic cut-and-paste job back when that phrase meant hands stinking with glue rather than clicking on a drop-down menu.  The resulting Jefferson’s Bible, composed primarily of philosophical discourses by the Jesus-guy, is one of the world’s greatest literary curiosities.  Jefferson commended it to Congress, which, with typical celerity, took a half century to consider declaring it as the fundamental qurán of the American nation.  So much for separation of church and state.  In reality budgetary restraints prevented the dissemination of TJ’s qurán, and as we all know, a creed without a propaganda organ dies the slow death of obscurity.

However the absence of a handbook never seemed to bother the Christian proto-leftists very much.  They knew what to reverence and what to discard.  For those lacking in discernment, bibles began to be printed with the words of Christ in red.  This keyed the reader into what had really been said by Jesus and what had been crammed surreptitiously into the margin by apostles, evangelists and sundry rogues.  As it turned out, pretty much everything other than the ethical discourses.   In the long years between the Jefferson Bible and he Jesus Seminar, each believer had the resources to do his or her own cut and past job…a personal qurán.  Today we also have multiple English translations which turn the meaning of both red and black letter passages into misleading fluff.

Parting the Red Sea

Those of us who believe in the whole Bible, and not just the passages in red, must none the less acknowledge the inspiration of the red passages.  Normally the ethical discourses are honored as exhortations to charitable acts, this is a benevolent but superficial response to the hard doctrines found in the ethical discourses.  We might picture this  “kindness and good-will interpretation” standing on the Egyptian side of  a Red Sea which must be traversed to get at the deeper meanings declared in Chist’s parables which await like a Promised Land.  This Red Sea, in which we are likely to perish if we don’t march through in good order, is the ethical-literal interpretation.  The depths in which we risk submerging  are the consequence of applying the ethical discourses as standards for normal social life, since they imply the doctrine of non-resistance to evil, a doctrine which, by extension, is in itself evil.

The doctrine of non-resistance to evil is not authentically Christian.  Rather, it is an atheistic doctrine disguised by Christian rhetoric.  It is a look-alike counterfeit of the Golden Rule, which states that one ought to treat others the way that you would wish to be treated yourself.  This is not the same as giving people whatever they want, which is neither just nor always in the best interest of the receiver.  Rather, if you abet someone’s corrupt desire, you are committing, rather than resisting evil.  Indeed, Jesus said and did several things which sounded like he was recommending non-resistance to evil as a general principle, however his immediate intention was to defeat evil.  His non-resistance in certain instances was more of a tactical maneuver, designed so that the powers and principalities of this world would not guess that he was sacrificing himself as an atonement for the sins of the human race.  Of course this is nonsense from the secular, atheistic viewpoint, since for them there can be no such thing as a sacrificial transaction between human beings and God.   For secularists “sacrifice” is a concept within the closed system of human ethics, essentially a zero-sum game.

If human life is a zero-sum game, then the number of ethical options is limited.  One may strive for more at the expense of others, or one may resign from the game.  Schopenhauer and sundry Eastern teachings recommend resignation.  There is a seeming benevolence and nobility in this.  One might also aid the underdog in the struggle, extorting wealth and being extorted until all beings settle down in a sea of level equality.  Although it is seldom stated so baldly, this is the root notion of what we are calling “leftism.”  As an encomium to extortion, the ethical sayings of Jesus, given the appropriate twist, fit perfectly into this program.  Except that they were never intended as such, self-sacrifice being a unique prerogative of the Messiah.

Beyond non-resistance to evil is the ethics of extortion.  Once we have abetted coercion and theft, what difference does it make whether we are the perpetrator or the victim?  A lot, believe me!  None the less, the question needs to be posed in order to understand the psychology of idealists, the mentality of leftism.  The psychology of aggression requires no great feat of interpretation.  But the psychology of those who would do anything to promote an ideal, including self-victimization, is a mystery.  In the mind of the leftist, a world of universal, mutual, extortion and theft would be a fast track to equalization of life conditions for all human beings on Earth.  However we know, from the record of Communist ruled countries, that this in fact never occurs.  Rather, as George Orwell, himself a leftist, bitterly observed “some animals are more equal than others.”

Did Jesus deliver the ethical discourses in order to institute equality of life results among the people of Earth? It would seem that yes, the Jesus the philosopher might have.  However this is a Jesus who lives exclusively in the mind of expositors such as Ernst Renan in the 19th century or the Jesus Seminar in ours.  He is not the Jesus of scripture, the one who said “the poor you shall have with you always” nor the Jesus who said that “not one jot or tittle” would be removed from the Torah, a code which certainly does not endorse equality of life results.

However since the Enlightenment it is the philosophical Jesus who has been admitted into the pantheon of secular saints.   Therefore, we ought to return to the question of whether leftism is a continuation of earlier Christian heresies like the spiritual Franciscans and the political Anabaptists, or whether it is a novelty of post-Enlightenment times.  I have no definitive answer to this question, but if I had to make a hypothesis it would be that power-seeking elites infiltrated the churches with their propagandists, and that part of the propaganda involved turning Christianity into a new religion.  The power seeking elites aimed at extortion, and all they needed was a population which accepted being extorted as an ethical duty.  Suffice to say this post-Enlightenment movement has been wildly successful, as all the political institutions of modernity, from the military draft to taxes on incomes and mandatory schooling to fractional reserve banking and deficit spending are all meritorious examples of rendering up our coats and cloaks on demand.  None dare call it extortion.

All of this would have taken place in the run up to, or the aftermath of, the French Revolution.   About the same time that Thomas Jefferson was busy editing his Bible in America, Schelermacher was editing orthodoxy in Germany.  From now on, religion was to be something one felt, not anything based on clear messages from God.  The ethical discourses had been abstracted as primary, while believers were made mentally incapable of objecting to the resulting theological lacuna. It was these very tendencies, namely, anti-intellectualism combined with an anti-elitism in secret servitude towards elites, which formed the mentality of the early modern left.   Their god was a god who came down from heaven,  commanded altruism, and then left humanity to work out its own salvation…not in fear and trembling, but in extortion and violence.


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