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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 Crisis of Christian Anthropology

Posted by nouspraktikon on March 31, 2009

God isn’t an Old Man with a White Beard, He’s a Young Man With a Black Beard

I have a bone to pick with Creationists, and it has little to do with the age of the Earth, for I consider myself a Creationist myself.  Rather, it is that the Christian imagination sidetracks itself when it flees from the human into the natural sciences.  As its name would surely imply, Christianity is the religion which combines a Theocentric Anthropology, and an Anthrocentric Theology.    This is such a basic fact that people constantly loose sight of it.  Calvin famously took Ostiander to task for predicating a connection between the Logos and the human species even before the fall.  Yet surely Ostiander had a point, in that the expression “made in our image” is antecedant to the fall and redemption.

Even the most elementary survey of comparative religion will show that the Christianity’s claim to be the “human religion” is no idle boast.  Once, that is, we have extracted ourselves from the contemporary rhetorical quagmire which conflates “humanism” and “secularity.”  The philosophy of Yoga, for instance, seeks with great ernestness to reduce the human entelechy to the various elements constituent of the universe (in non-Brahminical sects) or divinity (in Brahminism).  Shamanism, a widespread and primal notion, seeks with equal ernestness to assimilate the human spirit to that of various animals.  On the other hand, the various non-Christian psychisms, spiritisms, and occultisms promote a commerce between the spirit of their practitioners and various preternatural beings.  It is only Christianity which holds out for humanity qua humanity as central to divine concern.

One would think that contemporary Christian thinkers would see in Anthropology the strong suit of any contemporary evangel.   All the more so in that the force which opposes Christianity is so blatently anti-anthropic (i.e., as epitomised in C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”) and one can usually chart a sure course by going in a direction opposite irrelgious resistance.

Yet sadly there is no movement in the cutural sciences which Christians have granted the kind of importance (before even coming to assent) which has been lavished on opposition to Darwinism in geology, biology, and that kind of anthropology which would be better termed “human zoology.”  This is what I consider the “crisis of Christian anthropology.”  This is not to say that there is no Christian (cultural) anthropology whatsover, indeed there are several, often noncommunicating, paradigms which might be called (and sometimes are called) Christian anthropologies.  To the best of my knowlege these can be grouped into the following five categories, which I have listed in acending rank of scientific promise.  Note that here scientific promise correlates to lack of respectability and to some extent presence of danger.

Five Possible Christain Anthropologies

1.  There is a kind of mainstream anthropology which is done by Christians as well as secularists.  So we find textbooks written by Christian authors largely for missiological purposes which in no way challenge the material basis of secular anthropology.  In this category one can also put several institutes which translate Bibles and mission literature into isolated and/or minority languages, and which sometimes do original research in the area of linguistics.  These people are generally bright and respectable, but are in no way challeging secularist presuppositions in culturology in the way a Creationist might (rightly or wrongly) challenge Darwinian geology.  (Which is not to doubt their physical courage, after all missionary-ethnographers are more likely to suffer martrydom than the theorists of the other categories!)

2. “Anthropology” as it is construed as a category in Scholasticism and Protestant Systematic Theologies.  This largely centers on pneumatology or the nature of “the soul”, its distinction, or otherwise, from the spirit and relation to the body.    In many respects this is a well picked over field which consists in numerous opinions on how to, or if to, baptize Aristotel’s “De Anima.”  The focus is so narrowly focused that much of what constitutes the human sciences (eg. the history of technology, art, language) escape it.  Still it contains a number of Christian classics which should be on everyone’s “must read” list.

3. Philosophical Anthropology in so far as it is Christian.  And indeed, philosophical anthropology tends to be Christian, not only because of the major premise stated at the beinging of this essay but because in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries this was the dicipline which sought to retain the realist assumptions implicit in the question “What is Man?” after the hyper-nominalism of empirical, secular anthropology had endeavored to render the idea of a common species-nature for humanity meaningless.  Perhaps the best example of this is Max Scheler’s value-based anthropology.  Also I am inclined to put Ivan Illich’s varied speculations into this category, rather than the subsequent one, even though Illich (no more than Scheler) was no realist or scholastic…none the less such thinkers attempted to fill the lacuna left by philosophy when it surrendered the idea of a unified human nature to the various empirical sciences.  The present consensus is that none of these systems were entirely satisfactory, and indeed, Scheler was finally unable to reconcile his ideas with theological orthodoxy.

4.  Christian Culturology, in the sense of anthropological speculations which subsist with the salvation history contained in the Bible as part of a single unbreached continuum.  To the best of my knowlege the only representative of this type is the mimetic theory of Rene Girard and sundary variations and responses thereto.  Girard goes beyond Freud’s notion of the primal murder as the foundation of all culture in “Totem and Taboo” and sanctifies the process, showing that the revelation of human cultural mechanism was made transparent through the passion and the resurection of Christ.  This is a purely naturalistic explanation of culture, which most Christians seem perfectly comfortable with.  What almost all Christians baulk at is the uncomfortable feeling, in spite of Girard’s reasurances, that it implies a naturalistic explanation of the atonement and justification.

5. Preternatural explanations of culture.  In my opinion this is the ultimate goal…nothing less than the restoration of the original Christian, and Biblical, understanding of culture.  It is also the most dangerous option, both professionally and spiritually.  The truth of the matter is that, apart from eschatological rhetoric, Christian thinkers want to have as little as possible to do with supernatural…or more precisely preternatural.  That is to say, while giving lip service to the notion that we live in a multi-storied world, they are unwilling to use this notion as a tool for understanding culture in anything but the most general sense.  Yet the Bible and many traditions clearly indicate that much of what we call “culture” is a gift, even if a treacherous gift, from preternatural beings.

I am glad to mention two European thinkers of the last century, who whatever their failings, were brave enough to speak of civilization and the supernatural in the same breath.  One was Rene Guinon, who converted to Islam, but wrote extensively on symbolism as a clue to the mysterious forces which have interfered with the development of civilization.  The other is Valentin Tomberg, who did yeoman service for the Roman Catholic faith, but is still viewed with suspicion for possibly importing ideas of his earstwise mentor Rudolph Steiner into Christian mysticism.  Tomberg did not shy away from using the concept of the “eregevor”…i.e., the cognitive and spiritual prenumbra cast by a preternatural being over a population or an institution.  In this view eregovors, rather than human interaction, are the source of much which we commonly designate as culture.

I am not saying that this last category should be used as an exclusive explanation of human culture.  Indeed, such a thesis would sugest to certain minds that all culture is demonic!  None the less, it is fitting that the Christian anthropologist  recognize “all truth” without being intimidated by either the prejudice of naturalists or the specter of the preternatural itself.  However slight the inflence of the preternatural might be on human cultures, the total exclusion of this influence as a possible hypothesis (under naturalist pressure) introduces a systematic bias into our understanding of human events.

Conclusion: A Possible Synthesis

If Christianity is the Anthropological religion, then its advocates should not only “be all things to all men” but should also have a coherent and comprehensive understanding about what we mean by “Man” (Or if you will “the human race”…but this is really a nominalist/realist issue rather than a feminist/antifeminist one!)

The following is the most simple, reasonable, and Biblical schematism that I can deduce at present, and as you can see, it really involves two anthropologies.

“Adamic” or Negative Anthropology

consisting of three components:

a. Undefiled creational nature: elements, corporal entity

b. Nature perverted on human initiative:

“Cainite” culture, murder/sacrifice

c. Preternatural “gifts” to human culture, language, and tools

by sundry genii forming group eregevorim

i. angelic

ii. demonic

iii. neutral or confused

“Deutero-Adamic” or Positive Anthropology

Christ as federal head of assenting logoi

I know that someone will say that this is all terribly simplistic, or that perhaps I have reinvented the wheel.  Come to think of it, could anybody reinvent the wheel without downloading the information from a preternatural being?  (Sorry about that, after this super-serious article, I have to lighten up a bit!)

Posted in Christianity, Paleoconservativism, Theology, Traditionalism | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Cosmopolitanism: A Guide for the Perplexed

Posted by nouspraktikon on December 30, 2008

It’s an old book titled Civitas Dei

As the eventful year 2008 comes to a close, I want to take a look at one of the most complicated and difficult issues that anybody can tackle. By a look I really mean no more than that, a kind of momentary glance. I really would like to blog about something else entirely, but I find the issue of Cosmopolitanism, that is to what extent and to what degree we should be “One Worlders” pressing in on me with a kind of subconcious persistency. One might say that this is just the pet peve of someone who happens to be an American expatirate living in an Asian country, but the issue of globalism…not just the present globalism, with all its morally dubious assumptions, but the more ancient notion of Cosmopolitanism, that is, to what extent is, or to what extent should, the human race be one moral community needs to be kept in mind whenever considering a concrete issue, whether it be the present flare up of the Middle Eastern conflict in Gaza, the desirabilty or otherwise of continued support for the modern Olympic movment, the status of governments vs. NGOs in devlopment, or whatever.

I want to look at this issue from a specifically Christian background, specifically the one outlined in Augustine’s City of God. But before we reach the promised land of Augustine’s city, we need to develop a kind of phenomenology of cosmopolitanism. That is, what is this thing itself, this “world-city” and then perhaps we can better understand the classic Christian response to it, because that Christian response is itself very difficult to understand and grant assent to in the absence of a very thourogh going clearing of the conceptual terrain. Not only must we avoid jumping to Augustine’s conclusions, we must avoid any preemptive moralizing about the status of cosmopolitanism. This is very difficult because every day, in one sense or another, we (and here I mean pretty much everyone in the world) jump into the fray…either as universalists denouncing local bigotry, or as patriots denouncing the oppression of the globalist imperium.

The Two Cities (naturalist version)

Prior to the famous “Two Cities” spoken of by Augustine, that is both logically prior, and, in a sense, prior to Christain revelation, we can already posit two types of cosmopolitanisms. Historians and ethnologists will be displeased, but for purposes of typology lets consider these two ideal types 1) the Cynic-Stoic cosmopolitanism, and the 2) Pyramidal Cosmopolitanism.

The Cynic-Stoic cosmopolitanism presuposes very little in terms of common human law and institutions. It acnowleges that the human race is politically divided, that there are boundaries of language, culture, and race separating the various polities. However it sees in the common rationality of all people the potential for a universal moral community. There are two subvariants within this view. The Cynic sees culture as secondary, and postulates a “natural man” who, without prejudice or fear of social censure, crosses political boundaries simply because he dosn’t recognize their existence in nature. Of course he may be persecuted or ever killed, but with a certain degree of luck and cunning he may live out a kind of dog-like existence (Cynic means “like a dog” in Greek) enjoyable only to one who rejects the classical belief that true human life can only be satisfied within a communitarian framework. Obviously such a life, as opposed to involentary refugee status, can only be led under conditions of surrounding peace and order. Such conditions existed at the time of the wandering Sophists during 5th c. BC Greek civilization, and similar movments have broken out in other places, say the munis of ancient India, or the Qalandars in the medeval Middle East. The American hippy movement of the 1960s was the last notable manifestation.

Arguably the Cynic could be seen as a kind of apostle of anti-culture, but the impulse of human sympathy and a desire to spread enlightenment presupposes a more developed type, the Stoic, who is more of a positive proponent of cosmopolitanism as an idea. Here the notion is not just “strip off your culture and become an apolitical animal” but rather, “all cities are united by a higher law.” As itinerant philosophers, and sometimes slaves (Epictetus) the Stoics had no particular rights apart from universal human rights, and they were the earliest apostles of inclusionist humanism. They didn’t seek to create a world-state so much as to guide the concience of each particular state back to a common ground in natural law. Or as the Greeks would say, ground nomos on physis.

However by the Hellenistic/Roman period the Medeteranian world had become ripe for a world-state with its attendent law, a world-law not just in a theoretical sense, but in a statuatory sense. Here is where we start to see the ambiguously problematic nature of cosmopolitansim. A Stoic sitting on the throne (Marcus Aurelius) and a Stoic in chains (Epictetus) are clearly expouning universalism from different perspectives. So at this point it is useful to back up and consider whether “cosmopolitanism” is not two different ideas which have come to us packaged in one word.

Pyramidal Cosmopolitanism

This second idea contained in the term “cosmopolitanism” I will distinugish with the adjective “pyramidal.” In this case the classical illustration comes not from ancient Greece, but from the Middle East, notably the city states of Mesopotamia. These states were pyramidal in their organization, having a despot at the top, a layer of urban classes with assigned functions in the middle, and a surrounding peasantry at the bottom. The term “pyramid” is made all the more apt by the fact that the plan of these city-states actually were (architectually) dominated by ziggurats in the middle of their sacred-political precincts, and moreover that the top of these pyramidal structures were reserved for activities of a sacrificial or orgiastic nature.

The idea of a world-state was never actuallized in the ancient world, but we find that the archetype of such a state is found in the 11th chapter of the book of Genesis, in the famous story of the Tower of Babel. Today we think of Babylon as a geograpically and historically limited polity, but as with many Biblical “myths” there is more here than meets the eye. Without even appealing to a more esoteric hermenutic, it is clear that from the material eye of a contemporary Mesopotamian peasant a polity like the Assyrian or Neo-Chaladean empire would seem to “stretch to the ends of the world” and be expected to “last forever.” (Parenthetically, I suspect that that’s how the present American occupation of Iraq seems to the average Iraqi!)

These were command economy states of the sort classically described by Wittfoegel and K. Polanyi in modern scholarship. They were sophisticated societies in which all the benefits of civilization could be enjoyed, with the singular exception of freedom. Now perhaps we can see why the ambiguity of the term “cosmopolitanism” contains a fatal danger. All other things being equal (and fortunately they never quite are) small pyramids will tend to be incorporated into bigger and bigger pyramids, until these reach the final limit of expansion, which correponds to the limit of the world. Once a pyramid reaches the limit of the word (Greek: cosmos) a condition obtains where there is no “outside” only an inside.

This is an important point, because as long as there is a outside, a window onto a larger world, there is some hope that the system will not freez into total rigidity, total slavery. Thus Ludwig von Mises demonstrated that socialist economies needed a regulation-free entreport where the planners could evaluate the price of their products against the market. Likewise K. Polanyi points out that ancient empires required entrepots to obtain the scarce goods which they required for survival as states (iron, gold etc.) and more recent despotisms such as 18th century Dahomey also needed (managed) trade. However the momentum of pyramidal societies is to include as much of the rest of the world within their dominion as they can.

The Intervention of God

Until modern times the idea of a world-state was, presumably, nothing more than a speculative thought, albeit one which always was potential due to the pyramydal dynamic of inclusion. All the more remarkable then that the Hebrew scriptures portray such a state as a past historical accomplishment. Without getting into the issue of whether this was a historical incident, or whether readers of the Bible are simply being asked to engage in a daring gedankenexperimente, the story is remarkable in both its premise and the way in which the problem arising from the premise is resolved through divine intervention.

The premise is that a particular polity (Babel) has already, at an unspecified time in ancient history, reached the end-state for which all pyramidal societies strive: plenary domination of the world. Furthermore, not only is this polity inclusive of the human race, but it has reached a verticle limit as well, the limit at which the human domain ends and the world of the spritual beings begins.

The story reminds me of a speculation put forward (quite seriously) by an economist and acquantance of mine Mark Thornton. He noted that whenever there is a new record set for the highest skyscraper in the world, an economic collapse ensues. It is as if the skyscraper symbolizes the economic house of cards which is toppled at a certain unwarrented hight! Of course Prof. Thornton is a sophisticated person and dosn’t think that there is some sort of occult relationship between the height of skyscrapers and the market for securities. No doubt they are both dependent variables on some deeper cause which neither you nor I nor perhaps even Prof. Thornton can guess. Likewise the story of the Tower of Babel is not set out as a research program for Biblical archeologists. Rather it is a highly condensed, encrypted text bearing a message which, at its crudest, could be translated as “Heads up! Something is about to topple down on your head from the direction of your blind spot!”

Cosmopolitanism’s Obverse: The Curse/Blessing of Ethnicity

To get back to the story. As we all know, God intervens before the human builders can reach the threshold of the human/transhuman divide. We are led to believe that the political class of Babel has more in mind than just creating an illusion of their divinity among the masses. Somehow they are on the way to creating a technology which actually gives them preternatural powers sufficient to actually menace, if not the safty, at least the honor of real supernatural beings. At this point the Biblical narrative seems almost to harmonize with chorus in a Greek tragedy: this is hubris, this is an abomination!

The interesting point in the story, however, is not that God topples the tower. The tower would probably have toppled of its own accord, since the idea of a human project which transgresses the limits of the natural/divine boundary is inherently contradictory. However God preemptively puts an end to the tower, not by toppling it (which would have been a simple act of destruction) but by doing something which is highly characteristic of the Biblical God…he creates something new, in this case, he creates ethnicity!

Thus ethnicity comes into the world, according to the Bible, as a curse, as an obstruction to human cooperation. Some people might wonder why I say “ethnicity” rather than “language” since language, the “confusion of tongues” is what seems to be indicated at first glance. Contextally however, since we are talking in this instance about cosmopolitanism vs. localism, the universal vs. the particular, we have to see what was going on, even prior to Babel. Already we have different bloodlines branching out from the original human progenitors, families as it were, and these no doubt had some sense of particular identity. However when we add language into this mix we get something much more potent, closer to what ethnologists are inclined to recognize as a special population with its own culture and identity. So I think it is not unwarrented to call this conflation: families+languages=ethnic groups. And this is the end result of the story in the 11th chapter of Genesis. You might call this the end of the promise of primeval human unity, and the begining of discord and rivalry between different nations. So, at least from the prepositions of cosmopolitanism, as well as from the surface reading of the Bible, where the confusion of tongues is presented as a punishment for hubris, ethicity is clearly a curse. But it is something more than a curse, it is also a blessing, and to see how it is both we have to return to our starting point where we were evaluating the various nuances implied in the notion of “cosmopolitanism.”

A Third form of Cosmopolitanism

So to recap, we have our two cosmopolitanisms 1) the hippy idea best expressed by John Lenon in his famous song “Imagine” but stretching back to the Cynics, a world of universal nature upstaging particular law, and 2) the statist cosmopolitanism in which a single state conquers the world and makes its law universal and obligatory for the entire human race. Obviously these two ideas, apart from a common inclusiveness, are opposites…the first leading to total freedom, at least in theory, and the second leading to total slavery in both theory and practice.

Against the second, deadly universalism, the human inheritance of ethnicity serves as an obstacle and a limit. In this sense it may be considered a blessing indeed. And if God had ended his revelation to the human race at the 11th chapter of Genesis at least he wouldn’t have left us totally in the lurch. Then He wouldn’t have been the God of Israel, but the God of the Nations ( or in Hebrew, the Gentiles). We might have been fighting amongst ourselves for all eternity but at least we wouldn’t be condemned to slavery beneath the shadow of the ziggurats. There would be resistance, there would be the comaradery of fellow feeling within small communities, joy in victory and meaning even in defeat.

But of course, God has a way of introducing all sorts of stumbling blocks into human thinking. As soon as we have decided that the God of the Bible is an anarchist and an ethnic particularist, and we begin to read beyond Chapter 11 of Genesis, we start to learn that He is planting a seed in the middle of the world, the seed of Israel which will one day…grow into a world-encompassing-state!

Yipes! This is where a lot of people start abandoning ship and start looking up the time and places for the next meeting of Secular Humanist Association….or even the Naked Joyous Cult of the Local Pagan. So to spare people the pain lets skip to the New Testement.

The Messiah, the hoped for pinnacle of the universal state, has arrived, but he is…you had better sit down, because this one is a shocker…he’s a Cynic! He dosn’t want to rule a pyramid state, and in fact he tells Satan this specifically. He dosn’t even want to rule a nice well-ordered, local Jewish polis…much to the relief of the Herodians. The strange thing is that he has all the qualification for a philospher king: He’s brave, intelligent, people are attracted to him. He’s got what it takes…except he dosn’t want to be the founder of a state.

Actually I’m not a fan of Dominic Crossian’s version of New Testiment studies. I don’t think that Jesus was a Jewish version of Diogenes of Sinope. Yet in this one respect, that is regarding cosmopolitanism, the Jesus’ Kingdom of God resembles the Cynic vision much more than the Babylonian version.

What is to be done?

So where are we left today with the question of cosmopolitanism? Surely it is not a simple question of cosmopoltanism=good, nationalism=bad. On the other hand there are those who think that nationalism is an unequivocal good, and by their works you shall know them, their works being war, suffering, and destruction. No, I am going on the assumption that cosmopolitanism is good, but that it is far from an unequvocal good.

Today we are perplexed by globalism. We can’t live without the advantages of a global society, but it is doubtful that we could live with the end state of a unified global society played out to its logical conclusion. If we translate the contemporary catch phrase “globalism” back into what has been said about the more classical term “cosmopolitanism” it can be seen that this ambiguity comes from globalism being a compound of two diametrically different notions, that of natural law and of an artifically universalized positive law. The difficulty lies in knowing what particular policies or ideas tend towards which notional pole.

So how does the Kingdom of God “break out”? Obviously in a very difficult to understand way, since it is written “the violent carry it away.” If the kingdom of God means anything it means justice, and that means that all human beings must belong to one universal moral community. Yet that doesn’t mean that all forms of universalism are close to the Kingdom of God. Certainly I would be suspicious of pyramids of all sorts, people tend to get sacrificed to the cosmos or to society on the top of pyramids! For detailed speculatons on how this works I recomend anyone who is interested to the works of Rene Girard.

And for how to be a cosmopolitan in a degenerate cosmopolis I recommend the works of Augustine of Hippo. He was the apostle of inclusivism against all sorts of sects, the international man of Late Rome. Yet he knew that a mere inclusiveness motivated by lust for power and economies of scale would never lead to the promised end state of justice. In the end the City of God is both inclusive and exclusive but along different dimensions. Furthemore, while everybody is invited to immigrate, nobody is fit to be a citizen on their own merit! But now we have gone beyond the question of cosmopolitanism and into the even more difficult question of grace, where I must leave off. I hope at least that this blog entry has provided some food for thought regarding the first, preparatory topic.

And with that I wish anyone who reads a happy and blessed New Year 2009!

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