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Taboo deformation, bears, and “dagnabbit!”

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Dan Nosowitz has an interesting article in Atlas Obscura:

AMONG THE MOST HILARIOUS WORDS in the English language is “dagnabbit.” It’s full of very funny hard syllables and, for most Americans, it’s most often heard coming out of the cartoon mouth of Yosemite Sam, who has a funny voice and a big hat (big hats are also funny).

But the way the word evolved is not really funny. It is dark and ominous and paved with fear. “Dagnabbit,” along with the English words “bear” and “wolf,” are creations of a terrified populace, scared of beings visible and not.

These words are called, among linguists, taboo deformations. They are words we created because, in a very fantasy-novel sort of way, we are scared of the True Names of our enemies and overlords. Dagnabbit is an example of the perceived power of words to hurt us.

IT’S EASY TO ASSUME THAT language is, for all its variations and complexities, a shortcut, a way to convey meaning through sounds that represent concepts. But language itself has power. The word for a certain concept isn’t just a symbol; it is tied in some fundamental way to the concept itself. This pops up in humanity’s oldest stories: the idea is that each thing—person, god, object—has a true name, and that knowledge of that true name conveys power. There are stories about the true name of the Egyptian sun god Ra, of the Jewish monotheistic god, and later of various angels and demons and wizards in stories ranging from the Bible to, uh, the Earthsea fantasy novels written by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In stories like those above, one’s true name is a carefully guarded secret, and if someone finds out your true name, you’re sort of screwed; that person will have all sorts of power over you. But delightfully, this concept translates to everyday, non-fantasy-novel life as well. Except we don’t always know it.

The real-life version of this very fun idea is a bit different, partly because humans aren’t heroes on the scale of Odysseus or the Jewish god or Duny from A Wizard of Earthsea. Instead we are weak, fragile idiots who can’t really take advantage of the power of true names; instead, we’re terrified of them, and at risk of gruesome death if we use them.

“Taboo deformation is one possible way for a word to change its meaning,” says Andrew Byrd, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky who specializes in Indo-European languages. Basically, we are scared of the true names of certain beings or concepts, because to use them might mean we summon them, which we don’t want, or anger them, which we definitely don’t want, or simply make other humans mad at us, which is slightly less bad but still not ideal. The true name is powerful, and we normal humans can’t handle that power. So we avoid using the true name, but sometimes we still need to communicate with each other about those beings or concepts. That means we have to figure out a way to talk about something without using the actual word for it.

A great example of this is the word “bear,” in English. “Bear” is not the true name of the bear. That name, which I am free to use because the only bear near where I live is the decidedly unthreatening American black bear, is h₂ŕ̥tḱos. Or at least it was in Proto-Indo-European, the hypothesized base language for languages including English, French, Hindi, and Russian. The bear, along with the wolf, was the scariest and most dangerous animal in the northern areas where Proto-Indo-European was spoken. “Because bears were so bad, you didn’t want to talk about them directly, so you referred to them in an oblique way,” says Byrd.

H₂ŕ̥tḱos, which is pronounced with a lot of guttural noises, became the basis for a bunch of other words. “Arctic,” for example, which probably means something like “land of the bear.” Same with Arthur, a name probably constructed to snag some of the bear’s power. But in Germanic languages, the bear is called…bear. Or something similar. (In German, it’s bär.) The predominant theory is that this name came from a simple description, meaning “the brown one.”

In Slavic languages, the descriptions got even better: the Russian word for bear is medved, which means “honey eater.” These names weren’t done to be cute; they were created out of fear.

It’s worth noting that not everyone was that scared of bears. Some languages allowed the true name of the bear to evolve in a normal fashion with minor changes; the Greek name was arktos, the Latin ursos. Still the true name. Today in French, it’s ours, and in Spanish it’s oso. The bear simply wasn’t that big of a threat in the warmer climes of Romance language speakers, so they didn’t bother being scared of its true name.

Another example is the way Jews refuse to use the true name of God, which is made up of four Hebrew letters which roughly correspond to the Latin letters Y, H, V, and H. (Maybe. In Hebrew, the symbols that roughly correspond to Y and V can also be used as vowels.) Anyway, Jews traditionally do not speak this word, and when it’s written, there are specific rules about how to treat the paper it’s written on. Sometimes this has even been applied to translations; I was told in Hebrew school to write the word “God,” which is of Germanic origin and does not appear in any of the important Jewish holy books, as “G-d.” This was useful because nobody wanted to ritually bury our Mead Composition notebooks.

But YHVH appears throughout holy books, and so to talk about God, Jews have come up with dozens of options. Hashem means, literally, “the name.” Adonai means “lord,” Elohim means…well, nobody’s quite sure about that one. Maybe “the power,” or “the divine,” something like that. With some taboo deformations, like “bear,” we’ve basically replaced the true name with something else; not many people know that it’s even a replacement. The Jewish name of God is written down, and so remains known, but in other cases, the deformation can take over.

There are all kinds of things that we as humans are too scared of to use its real name. God, sure, always smiting people, very scary. Bears, same thing, although “smiting” may not be correct word for a bear attack. Some words, like ethnic slurs, are so repugnant that they can’t be used at all, or are restricted to in-group use.

There’s also something called “mother-in-law languages,” which aren’t exactly languages. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 March 2018 at 9:15 am

Creating a culture in which empathy is absent

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I pointed out in an earlier post this fascinating article: “Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel.” It’s worth reading, with the idea that White Evangelical culture was developed in the centuries in which slavery was an essential part of Southern culture. (And this is quite clear about memes, their persistence over time and how they can evolve very slowly in human terms.)

If a culture is to support slavery, it must act to minimize empathy, somehow eradicating it as a cultural value. Since the South is the core of the modern GOP, that lack of empathy would explain the GOP’s “I’m getting mine and to hell with others” attitude we see so frequently. That is not an attitude of someone who has empathy.

And similarly, in the rise of modern US police departments from slave patrols (here’s a good brief summary), empathy would again be minimized and African-Americans would draw the most interest. That police culture seems alive and well in many cities. When new police recruits enter that culture, they absorb its values, and though the personnel change the culture persists.

The institution of slavery damaged the slave owners by embedding them in a culture that lacked empathy. Obviously, the damage to slaves was also great.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2018 at 3:28 pm

Why White Evangelicalism Is So Cruel

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Very interesting article in Forbes by Chris Ladd:

Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and an avid supporter of Donald Trump, earned headlines this week for his defense of the president’s adultery with a porn star. Regarding the affair and subsequent financial payments, Jeffress explained, “Even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter.”

Such a casual attitude toward adultery and prostitution might seem odd from a guy who blamed 9/11 on America’s sinfulness. However, seen through the lens of white evangelicals’ real priorities, Jeffress’ disinterest in Trump’s sordid lifestyle makes sense. Religion is inseparable from culture, and culture is inseparable from history. Modern, white evangelicalism emerged from the interplay between race and religion in the slave states. What today we call “evangelical Christianity,” is the product of centuries of conditioning, in which religious practices were adapted to nurture a slave economy. The calloused insensitivity of modern white evangelicals was shaped by the economic and cultural priorities that forged their theology over centuries.

Many Christian movements take the title “evangelical,” including many African-American denominations. However, evangelicalism today has been coopted as a preferred description for Christians who were looking to shed an older, largely discredited title: Fundamentalist. A quick glance at a map showing concentrations of adherents and weekly church attendance reveals the evangelical movement’s center of gravity in the Old South. And among those evangelical churches, one denomination remains by far the leader in membership, theological pull, and political influence.

There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s most powerful evangelical denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.

Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children. Whiteness offered protection from many of the South’s cruelties, but that protection stopped at the subject of race. No one who dared speak truth to power on the subject of slavery, or later Jim Crow, could expect protection.

Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.

What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers. In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was burned away.

Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness, along with a creepy obsession with the unquestionable sexual authority of white men. In a culture where race defined one’s claim to basic humanity, women took on a special religious interest. Christianity’s historic emphasis on sexual purity as a form of ascetic self-denial was transformed into an obsession with women and sex. For Southerners, righteousness had little meaning beyond sex, and sexual mores had far less importance for men than for women. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race. There was no higher moral demand.

Changes brought by the Civil War only heightened the need to protect white racial superiority. Churches were the lynchpin of Jim Crow. By the time the Civil Rights movement gained force in the South, Dallas’ First Baptist Church, where Jeffress is the pastor today, was a bulwark of segregation and white supremacy. As the wider culture nationally has struggled to free itself from the burdens of racism, white evangelicals have fought this development while the violence escalated. What happened to ministers who resisted slavery happened again to those who resisted segregation. White Episcopal Seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, went to Alabama in 1965 to support voting rights protests. After being released from jail, he was murdered by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, who was acquitted by a jury. Dozens of white activists joined the innumerable black Americans murdered fighting for civil rights in the 60’s, but very few of them were Southern.

White Evangelical Christians opposed desegregation tooth and nail. Where pressed, they made cheap, cosmetic compromises, like Billy Graham’s concession to allow black worshipers at his crusades. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” For white Southern evangelicals, justice and compassion belong only to the dead.

Churches like First Baptist in Dallas did not become stalwart defenders of segregation by accident. Like the wider white evangelical movement, it was then and remains today an obstacle to Christian notions of social justice thanks to a long, dismal heritage. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology. No sign of such a reckoning is apparent.

Those waiting to see the bottom of white evangelical cruelty have little source of optimism. Men like Pastor Jeffress can dismiss Trump’s racist abuses as easily as they dismiss his fondness for porn stars. When asked about Trump’s treatment of immigrants, Jeffress shared these comments: . . .

Continue reading.

Cultural constructs can persist for generations, even after they have proved counterproductive. For example, read this brief article by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.: A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing. It begins:

The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions. The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing. Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.

Policing was not the only social institution enmeshed in slavery. Slavery was fully institutionalized in the American economic and legal order with laws being enacted at both the state and national divisions of government. Virginia, for example, enacted more than 130 slave statutes between 1689 and 1865. Slavery and the abuse of people of color, however, was not merely a southern affair as many have been taught to believe. Connecticut, New York and other colonies enacted laws to criminalize and control slaves. Congress also passed fugitive Slave Laws, laws allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves, in 1793 and 1850. As Turner, Giacopassi and Vandiver (2006:186) remark, “the literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”

The legacy of slavery and racism did not end after the Civil War. In fact it can be argued that extreme violence against people of color became even worse with the rise of vigilante groups who resisted Reconstruction. Because vigilantes, by definition, have no external restraints, lynch mobs had a justified reputation for hanging minorities first and asking questions later. Because of its tradition of slavery, which rested on the racist rationalization that Blacks were sub-human, America had a long and shameful history of mistreating people of color, long after the end of the Civil War. Perhaps the most infamous American vigilante group, the Ku Klux Klan started in the 1860s, was notorious for assaulting and lynching Black men for transgressions that would not be considered crimes at all, had a White man committed them. Lynching occurred across the entire county not just in the South. Finally, in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which prohibited state actors from violating the Civil Rights of all citizens in part because of law enforcements’ involvement with the infamous group. This legislation, however, did not stem the tide of racial or ethnic abuse that persisted well into the 1960s. . .

Read the whole thing: it’s short.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 March 2018 at 9:31 am

Scientists studying psychoactive drugs accidentally proved the self is an illusion

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Ephrat Livni writes in Quartz:

Philosophers and mystics have long contemplated the disconcerting notion that the fixed self is an illusion. Neuroscientists now think they can prove it or, at least, help us glimpse this truth with some help from psilocybin, the psychoactive property in magic mushrooms.

Researchers around the world are exploring the drug’s transformative power to help people quit smoking; lower violent crime; treat depression, anxiety. and post-traumatic stress disorder; and trigger lasting spiritual epiphanies in psychologically healthy people, especially when coupled with meditation or contemplative training.

There are some limitations to psilocybin studies—they tend to be small, and rely on volunteers willing to take drugs and, thus, open to an alternate experience. But the research could have major implications in an age characterized by widespread anxiety. Psilocybin seems to offer some people a route to an alternate view of reality, in which they shed the limitations of their individual consciousness and embrace a sense of interconnectedness and universality. These trips aren’t temporary, but have transformative psychological effects. Even if we don’t all end up on mushrooms, the studies offer insights on how we might minimize suffering and interpersonal strife and gain a sense of peace.

Consider a study of 75 subjects, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology last October. The study concluded that psilocybin leads to mystical experiences that can have long-term psychological benefits in conjunction with meditation training. The greater the drug dosage, the more potent the positive psychological effect was six months later. “Participants showed significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping,” the study concluded.

Meanwhile, in July, psychologist Richard Williams of John Hopkins University revealed an experiment involving clergy and psilocybin. Williams is enlisting priests, rabbis, and Zen Buddhist monks to take drugs, meditate, and “collect inner experiences.” (No Muslim or Hindu clerics agreed to participate.) The study will last a year, so no results are out yet. But Williams told The Guardian in July 2017 that so far, the clerics report feeling simultaneously more in touch with their own faith and greater appreciation for alternate paths. “In these transcendental states of consciousness, people … get to levels of consciousness that seem universal. So a good rabbi can encounter the Buddha within him,” Williams said.

To understand how mushrooms can change our worldviews, we must first explore how brains shape our sense of self.

The shared dream

Our awareness of existence—the ability to distinguish between the self and others—is created by the brain, neuroscientist Anil Seth explains in his TED talk, “Your brain hallucinates consciousness.” He says, “Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience—and not just any conscious experience, your experience of the world around you and of yourself within it.”

Yet when you are unconscious, you continue to exist without perceiving your own presence. You cease to participate in reality but continue to live. When roused back into consciousness, you lack a narrative to explain the time away. The narrative of the story that seems to be your life is just a function of your brain’s mechanisms, not who you really are.

Still, the hallucination of consciousness is one we’re all having in tandem. When we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality,” according to Seth. In this agreed-upon reality, we are each separate individuals, whose stories begin with our births and end with our deaths.

But there are other ways to experience reality, which you may have already glimpsed, even if only fleetingly. Sometimes our consciousness shifts. The boundaries of the self seem to become less rigid and we commune with another person or thing, as can happen during drug-induced epiphanies, sure—but can also happen when people fall in love, meditate, go out in nature, or experience a great meeting of minds.

In The Book (pdf), philosopher Alan Watts writes that we aren’t individuals existing in lonely bodies. We’re a flowing segment in the continuous line of life. He and others—mystics, monkspoets (pdf), and philosophers from numerous traditions—argue that people are sad and hostile because we live with a false sense of separation from one another and the rest of the world. “This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences,” Watts wrote in The Book. “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.”

Seeing the interconnectedness and timelessness of existence provides a grand scale. It helps put your problems in perspective. That’s why scientists are trying to find ways to trigger the epiphany Watts talks about. Drugs can help, especially since we think we now know how the brain generates the illusion of self.

Turning off default mode

Normal consciousness relies, at least in part, on the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN), according to neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris, head of psychedelic research in the brain sciences division of the Imperial College of London medical school. The DMN is a network of interacting brain regions that acts as a cognitive transit hub, integrating and assimilating information. As the name implies, it’s the usual system of organization for your mind. Carhart-Harris says the DMN “gives coherence to cognition” by connecting different regions of the brain, and is considered the “orchestrator of the self.”

Carhart-Harris and his colleagues found what seems to be an important function of the DMN inadvertently. While studying brain networksthey got curious about what changes might occur when people are under the effects of hallucinogens. In studies analyzing the effects of psilocybinon brain wave oscillation and blood flow, they found that when the DMN was inactive, an alternate network of consciousness seemed to arise.

When some study subjects tested psilocybin, they reported a strong sense of interconnectedness, as well as spiritual, magical, and supernatural feelings.

In the alternate mode, brains produced a different world that offered other sensations and realizations than in everyday life. In this mode, the self wasn’t the protagonist of the narrative. Meanwhile,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 February 2018 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Religion, Science

Pope Francis, company man: He shocked Chile by accusing victims of pedophile priests of slander

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Kevin Cullen writes in the Boston Globe:

Let the record show that the promise of Pope Francis died in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 18, in the year of our Lord 2018.

When Pope Francis slandered victims of sexual abuse, ironically by accusing those very victims of slandering a Chilean bishop who was complicit in that abuse, he confirmed what some critics have said all along, what I have always resisted embracing: Pope Francis is a company man, no better than his predecessors when it comes to siding with the institutional Roman Catholic Church against any who would criticize it or those, even children, who have been victimized by it.

I offer my hearty congratulations to His Holiness, His Eminence, or whatever self-regarding, officious title that his legion of coat holders, admirers, apologists, and enablers insist we, the great unwashed, call him. Because he has revealed himself like no one else could.

By saying he needs to see proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the abuse perpetrated by the Rev. Fernando Karadima, Francis has shown himself to be the Vatican’s newest Doubting Thomas. And it’s not a good look.

The pope’s outrageous slander of Karadima’s victims is all the more stunning and disgraceful because the Vatican itself had in 2011 accepted the truth of what those victims said and sentenced Karadima to what it called a lifetime of “penance and prayer” for abusing young people. Sounds like how a previous pope “punished” Cardinal Bernard Law for his dutiful coverup of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston by putting him in charge of one of the great basilicas of Rome and giving him digs in a palatial apartment where he was waited on hand and foot by servile nuns. Some punishment. Where do I sign up?

And just what exactly would constitute the proof that Pope Francis is now seeking, years after the Vatican accepted the claims of Karadima’s victims, who said Bishop Barros facilitated the abuse by refusing to take action against Karadima even though he knew Karadima was a predator?

Juan Carlos Cruz, one of Karadima’s victims and one of Bishop Barros’s most outspoken critics, put it this way: “As if I could have taken a selfie or a photo while Karadima abused me and others and Juan Barros stood by watching it all.”

Like others who have been physically assaulted by priests and mentally tortured by the craven complicity and inaction of bishops who are supposed to protect their flock from predators in Roman collars, Cruz has ruefully concluded that Pope Francis is no better than the others.

“These people are truly crazy,” Cruz said, “and the pontiff talks about atonement to the victims. Nothing has changed, and his plea for forgiveness is empty.”

Empty. Good word. Describes what an increasing number of Catholic churches in Chile and in many other countries are becoming.

Oh, well, lucky for the Vatican, there are still many places where people are horribly poor, sadly uneducated, and not served by a robust, free press, where deference to the clergy and the majesty of the Vatican is still as thick as the fine robes that some of the worst enablers of sexual abuse hide behind.

It should be noted that, for all the talk of Pope Francis cutting a new path for the Catholic Church, he was elected by a conclave of cardinals that included some of those cynical and criminal enablers of abuse, like the disgraced and disgraceful former archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony.

To be honest — and the good Sisters of Providence who taught me at Cheverus School in Malden always stressed the importance of honesty — I knew that Francis was no different, that he was right out of central Vatican casting, last year, when Marie Collins quit the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that Francis had created to much fanfare.

Collins, who was molested by a priest when she was 13, quit the panel because the Vatican was resisting genuine reform. I met Collins years ago in Ireland, where she is from and where I at one time lived, and I think she is a courageous, compassionate person who understands what sexual abuse at the hands of priests can do to one’s soul better than any of the mandarins in the Vatican, including the pope.

That commission, headed by the pope’s closest American confidant, Boston’s own Cardinal Sean O’Malley, was allowed to expire last month without an explanation from the same pope who took figurative bows for forming it in the first place. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 January 2018 at 9:39 am

Everything you know about the Gospel of Paul is likely wrong

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David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer, and cultural commentator, is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. He has just published a new translation of the New Testament and in Aeon has this comment:

This past year, I burdened the English-speaking world with my very own translation of the New Testament – a project that I undertook at the behest of my editor at Yale University Press, but that I agreed to almost in the instant that it was proposed. I had long contemplated attempting a ‘subversively literal’ rendering of the text. Over the years, I had become disenchanted with almost all the standard translations available, and especially with modern versions produced by large committees of scholars, many of whom (it seems to me) have been predisposed by inherited theological habits to see things in the text that are not really there, and to fail to notice other things that most definitely are. Committees are bland affairs, and tend to reinforce our expectations; but the world of late antiquity is so remote from our own that it is almost never what we expect.

Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith.

Some details might vary, but not the basic story. And, admittedly, much of the tale’s language is reminiscent of terms used by Paul, at least as filtered through certain conventional translations; but it is a fantasy. It presumes elements of later Christian belief absent from Paul’s own writings. Some of these (like the idea that humans are born damnably guilty in God’s eyes, or that good deeds are not required for salvation) arise from a history of misleading translations. Others (like the concept of an eternal hell of conscious torment) are entirely imagined, attributed to Paul on the basis of some mistaken picture of what the New Testament as a whole teaches.

Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels. A certain long history of misreadings – especially of the Letter to the Romans – has created an impression of Paul’s theological concerns so entirely alien to his conceptual world that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory. It is true that he addresses issues of ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’, and asserts that this is available to us only through the virtue of pistis– ‘faith’ or ‘trust’ or even ‘fidelity’. But for Paul, pistis largely consists in works of obedience to God and love of others. The only erga, ‘works’, which he is anxious to claim make no contribution to personal sanctity, are certain ‘ritual observances’ of the Law of Moses, such as circumcision or kosher dietary laws. This, though, means that the separation between Jews and gentiles has been annulled in Christ, opening salvation to all peoples; it does not mean (as Paul fears some might imagine) that God has abandoned his covenant with Israel.

Questions of law and righteousness, however, are secondary concerns. The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph. For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God. But Christ has conquered them all.

In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly. Sometimes, Paul speaks as if some human beings will perish along with the present age, and sometimes as if all human beings will finally be saved. He never speaks of some hell for the torment of unregenerate souls.

The new age, moreover – when creation will be glorified and transformed into God’s kingdom – will be an age of ‘spirit’ rather than ‘flesh’. For Paul, these are two antithetical principles of creaturely existence, though most translations misrepresent the antithesis as a mere contrast between God’s ‘spirit’ and human perversity. But Paul is quite explicit: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.’ Neither can psychē, ‘soul’, the life-principle or anima that gives life to perishable flesh. In the age to come, the ‘psychical body’, the ‘ensouled’ or ‘animal’ way of life, will be replaced by a ‘spiritual body’, beyond the reach of death – though, again, conventional translations usually obscure this by speaking of the former, vaguely, as a ‘natural body’.

Paul’s voice, I hasten to add, is hardly an eccentric one. John’s Gospel too, for instance, tells of the divine saviour who comes ‘from above’, descending from God’s realm into this cosmos, overthrowing its reigning Archon, bringing God’s light into the darkness of our captivity, and ‘dragging’ everyone to himself. And, in varying registers, so do most of the texts of the New Testament. As I say, it is a conceptual world very remote from our own.

And yet it would be foolish to try to judge the gospel’s spiritual claims by how plausible we find the cosmology that accompanies them. For one thing, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

8 January 2018 at 9:03 am

Posted in Books, Memes, Religion

Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it

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Peter Harrison, an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, writes in Aeon, which notes that “his most recent book is The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), and his edited collection Narratives of Secularization(2017) will be published later this year.”

In 1966, just over 50 years ago, the distinguished Canadian-born anthropologist Anthony Wallace confidently predicted the global demise of religion at the hands of an advancing science: ‘belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge’. Wallace’s vision was not exceptional. On the contrary, the modern social sciences, which took shape in 19th-century western Europe, took their own recent historical experience of secularisation as a universal model. An assumption lay at the core of the social sciences, either presuming or sometimes predicting that all cultures would eventually converge on something roughly approximating secular, Western, liberal democracy. Then something closer to the opposite happened.

Not only has secularism failed to continue its steady global march but countries as varied as Iran, India, Israel, Algeria and Turkey have either had their secular governments replaced by religious ones, or have seen the rise of influential religious nationalist movements. Secularisation, as predicted by the social sciences, has failed.

To be sure, this failure is not unqualified. Many Western countries continue to witness decline in religious belief and practice. The most recent censusdata released in Australia, for example, shows that 30 per cent of the population identify as having ‘no religion’, and that this percentage is increasing. International surveys confirm comparatively low levels of religious commitment in western Europe and Australasia. Even the United States, a long-time source of embarrassment for the secularisation thesis, has seen a rise in unbelief. The percentage of atheists in the US now sits at an all-time high (if ‘high’ is the right word) of around 3 per cent. Yet, for all that, globally, the total number of people who consider themselves to be religious remains high, and demographic trends suggest that the overall pattern for the immediate future will be one of religious growth. But this isn’t the only failure of the secularisation thesis.

Scientists, intellectuals and social scientists expected that the spread of modern science would drive secularisation – that science would be a secularising force. But that simply hasn’t been the case. If we look at those societies where religion remains vibrant, their key common features are less to do with science, and more to do with feelings of existential security and protection from some of the basic uncertainties of life in the form of public goods. A social safety net might be correlated with scientific advances but only loosely, and again the case of the US is instructive. The US is arguably the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world, and yet at the same time the most religious of Western societies. As the British sociologist David Martin concluded in The Future of Christianity (2011): ‘There is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.’

The story of science and secularisation becomes even more intriguing when we consider those societies that have witnessed significant reactions against secularist agendas. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed secular and scientific ideals, and enlisted scientific education in the project of modernisation. Nehru was confident that Hindu visions of a Vedic past and Muslim dreams of an Islamic theocracy would both succumb to the inexorable historical march of secularisation. ‘There is only one-way traffic in Time,’ he declared. But as the subsequent rise of Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism adequately attests, Nehru was wrong. Moreover, the association of science with a secularising agenda has backfired, with science becoming a collateral casualty of resistance to secularism.

Turkey provides an even more revealing case. Like most pioneering nationalists, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was a committed secularist. Atatürk believed that science was destined to displace religion. In order to make sure that Turkey was on the right side of history, he gave science, in particular evolutionary biology, a central place in the state education system of the fledgling Turkish republic. As a result, evolution came to be associated with Atatürk’s entire political programme, including secularism. Islamist parties in Turkey, seeking to counter the secularist ideals of the nation’s founders, have also attacked the teaching of evolution. For them, evolution is associated with secular materialism. This sentiment culminated in the decision this June to remove the teaching of evolution from the high-school classroom. Again, science has become a victim of guilt by association.

The US represents a different cultural context, where it might seem that the key issue is a conflict between literal readings of Genesis and key features of evolutionary history. But in fact, much of the creationist discourse centres on moral values. In the US case too, we see anti-evolutionism motivated at least in part by the assumption that evolutionary theory is a stalking horse for secular materialism and its attendant moral commitments. As in India and Turkey, secularism is actually hurting science.

In brief, global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?

Historically, two related sources advanced the idea that science would displace religion. First,  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

23 December 2017 at 11:00 am

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