Tuesday, December 28, 2010

life in all its intensity, illogicality and durability

orthodox for some

Recently I received the gift of a book of essays and occasional pieces, written in the sixties, by Charmian Clift, one of Australia's most talented and thought-provoking writers. The collection is entitled Trouble in lotus land. One of her pieces, 'The loftiest form of springtime', is a short but intense and vivid description, half poetical, half anthropological, of the ritual activities and festivities around Easter Passion week on a Greek island - that's to say, within a close-knit and profoundly tradition-bound Greek community. The Day of Lazarus, Palm Sunday, Holy or Passion week, Maundy Thursday, these are terms with no great significance for me, but on this Greek Island these days and weeks are imbued with a seasonal ritual which clearly isn't entirely Christian. As Clift puts it:
Christ and Dionysus merge in torn flesh and flowers, and life is resurrected from the dead earth. The pagan world is always there, lingering on, dark and impenitent.
Reading about these rituals, their colour and intensity, their apparent essentiality to the communities that engage in them, takes me far from the kind of remark I read this morning, a blog comment about faith as a form of intellectual dishonesty, and not really 'a way of knowing' at all. My response, right now, would be that faith, for these communities, isn't a way of knowing, but more like a way of being, and that to call it faith wouldn't be entirely accurate. For these villagers, as with tribal peoples throughout the world, all of this goes beyond the label of 'faith' or 'religion', and terms like 'truth' and 'falsehood' don't really apply. It's just what they do, and it constitutes their identity. I've written about this in an essay called 'big and small religions', in which I express my ambivalence about attacks on religious belief based purely on logic. I don't think religious belief is particularly logical in the accepted sense, but it can clearly provide people with a strong sense of identity, motivation and energy, as the work of Emily Kngwarreye has so powerfully shown. I've long been of the view that religion and science are not reconcilable, that at base they are in competition in seeking to explain how the world is and how it works, but it's clear that we can't all be scientists, and there are whole cultures with traditions that can't readily incorporate the findings of modern science. The sorts of vigorous and rigorous critiques aimed at fundamentalist Christians, or at the teachings of the RCC, seem to me inappropriate when dealing with smaller, tribal religions or belief systems, or their quirky versions of mainstream, larger religions. A sort of 'tread softly, for you tread on my whole way of being' approach is called for. We can even celebrate the colour and intensity and ingenuity of their rituals and belief systems, while always recognising how much damage they can do [I've seen a horrible video in which a young girl was being threatened with death by a 'witchdoctor' for being possessed, and we often hear of the horrific treatment of albinos in Africa, due to irrational belief systems, etc]. For the most part, though, they are effective in binding communities together and helping them to thrive collectively, if not individually - otherwise, such rituals and belief systems wouldn't have developed. 
Some have argued that the sympathetic attitudes of some western intellectuals towards these 'small religions' or local 'traditions' smacks of condescension, but in Australia, as elsewhere, we've learned the hard way of the dangers and the damage involved in underestimating the power, the energy and the resilience of supposedly primitive belief systems. I for one don't see them disappearing in the foreseeable future, until at least a scientific worldview is equally capable of binding communities together, providing equivalent rewards and satisfactions [as of course it does in many modern scientific fields and 'campus communities'].
Another thing about this little piece - it took me back to my own readings of anthropological writings in the eighties, especially Clifford Geertz's concept of 'thick description', the idea that the anthropologist should describe the ritual or practise in the richest possible detail, incorporating not only her own observations, but whatever commentary or  background can be provided by the participants, however contradictory or multifarious - the contradictions and 'illogicalities' being often more revealing and key to the understanding of the event as any 'official' version. To try to see things from a variety of other perspectives can't be a completely bad thing, can it?  

Sunday, December 26, 2010

an unsatisfying mix of astrology, astronomy and religion

not the most interesting subject

The other night, I think it was Christmas eve, I caught an odd late-night program on SBS, I think. It was called 'Star of Bethlehem. Behind the myth', and was completed in December 2009, so was probably first shown last Christmas. The blurb claims that astronomical evidence supports the Christmas story, by which they presumably mean the story of the 'star of Bethlehem'. The program didn't bear that out at all, in fact it was a sometimes interesting, often irritating mix of astronomical info and speculation, astrological history and religious pap. 
The theme of the program appeared to be: could the star of Bethlehem, the one mentioned in Matthew [and only in Matthew], refer to a real, verifiable event in the night sky at that time? Answer: quite possibly.
I mean - big fucking deal. Of course there could have been an event in the night sky sometime during the very vague defined period of time within which Jesus may have been born. Does this back up the Christian birth story? Of course not. Here's a quote from the doco:

Looking at the story of the magi and the stellar beacon from a scientific point of view, is it possible to determine what exactly the "star" was that heralded the arrival of a baby boy to the wise men? If you believe the account was more than just a story and the star was more than a story-telling device, then you need to analyze the sky around the time of Jesus's birth to find what may have played the role of the Star of Bethlehem.
This misses the bleeding obvious point [to me] that a very real comet or supernova may well have appeared in the night sky in 6BCE or 5BCE or 7BCE and been incorporated into the story by the author of Matthew, with as little regard for the truth as his genealogy of Jesus and his links to Old Testament 'prophecy'. The use of a 'star' as a portent would be just like Matthew - anything that might add to the significance of his 'messiah' would be roped in and manipulated to suit his story. It doesn't make the event [I mean Jesus's birth, not the comet or whatever] more real. As to the speculation about what the star of Bethlehem might actually have been, there just isn't enough information in Matthew to get a handle on it, so it's a bit pointless, but if evidence turned up that a comet or supernova was visible in the night sky at those latitudes in those years, that's fine and dandy, Matthew might have been referring to it. Or not. End of very feeble story. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

christmas cheer

watch out for Santa!

We often have people complaining about the commerciality of xmas, with the 'real' message being forgotten, but while indulgence often sickens - and I've been feeling half-sick all day - the basic message for me has always been kindness to children, anticipation, surprise, imagination and fun. Santa and his jollity are an apt replacement for the solemn figures bowed around the manger. He has become the closest thing to a secular mythical figure we have, and although some insist that 'he knows if you've been bad or good', the emphasis is overwhelmingly on goodness, and even more on happiness. I've discovered some who really love Christmas for the simple delight and sense of expectation it brings. They don't say that the real message has been subverted by Christians, for many of them are probably Christians themselves, but they appear to give little thought to Jesus and being saved from sin at this time of the year, and so much the better.

So, happy Christmas, for what's in a name, and thank you, Santa.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

amongst other things, what julian assange should say in response to US claims that he's a terrorist

Ages ago I decided to head all of my posts with quotes from my desultory reading, but typically I didn't keep it up for long. however, as there have been rich pickings of late I've decided to try again.

Science is often misrepresented as 'the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory'. Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
Jared Diamond, Collapse

In avoidance mode big-time re my studies, and of course it's that time of year when self-indulgence, even if only in the form of sluggishness, is permitted to come to the fore.

Tonight I watched Stephen Fry in the USA, travellin north up the Mississip, his arm all slung up, presumably due to the accident he suffered in Last Chance to See, which I also loved. I was jealous, because being famous and in demand allows you to do just this, meet all sorts of bods, quirky and weird and resilient and hospitable and optimistic and delightful. Anyway, experiencing all these folks in one-way-mirror TV land is way better than not experiencing them at all, so cheers to Fry and his open-heartedness and curiosity and self-deprecating humour and energy.

I'm still not sure of the ethics of what Julian Assange and Wikileaks is doing, but I'm sure I'm one of many who get their back up when someone like him gets described as a terrorist. I wish he would come out with an eloquent statement of denunciation, or retaliation, something to really rouse the rabble, something like this:

Hello everyone, I'd just like to address some brief remarks to you about the recent claim, by no less a personage than Joe Biden, the USA's President of Vice, that I am a terrorist, who runs a terrorist organisation. Now, you might think that Mr Biden, considering his position, would know a lot about vice, and I have no doubt that terrorism is one of the nastiest vices around, but I would ask you to consider carefully this claim. What is terrorism, and what is a terrorist? Well, I think that my own understanding of terrorism is an uncontroversial, mainstream understanding. Terrorists are people whose intention is to spread terror. That's why they're called terrorists, right? It's not rocket science, it's terrorism. And they spread terror through acts of violence, usually extreme violence. Murder, bombing, kidnapping - we all know the story. But unfortunately, the term terrorism and the term terrorist are currently perhaps the most abused terms in the English language today. Since September 11, and really before that, in the last ten or fifteen years in which terrorism has gained a much higher profile in the west, the term has been hijacked by rogue states wishing to silence internal dissent, by nations wishing to goad enemy nations, by political parties keen to denounce their opposites, and so forth. It is a tool intended, I think, to silence debate, but as always with such tools, the more it is used [or rather, abused], the more ineffectual it becomes.
Biden isn't the first US establishment figure to use the terrorism word against me - I believe Joe Lieberman has made a similar accusation recently. This surely should move us to ask - why is it that the US establishment in particular is so keen to abuse and denigrate me? And I hope you can see the humour in Biden's accusation, for in the very same interview in which Biden described me as a terrorist - that's to say, the most horrific and inhuman of arch-criminals - he told the interviewer that he had set a legal team to comb the legislation to see if just possibly they could find some charge they could lay against me. And no doubt they've been looking for months, and so far have found nothing to charge me with. So here I am, a terrorist, the most criminal of criminals, who hasn't broken the law.
So, okay, let's be serious again and ask ourselves, why all this nasty rhetoric? Well, I don't think it's all that difficult to explain. I'm not a historian, but I do have an interest in history, and I can tell you that every state that has risen to great power and prominence, now or in the past, has been ruthless, utterly ruthless, in protecting, and if possible furthering, its own hegemony. I make this historical point lest anyone imagine that I am some kind of rabid anti-American. Each of these powerful states - the USA, the Soviet Union, Imperial Britain, Imperial Rome - have tended very strongly to identify their own interests with the interests of their subject peoples, their client states, and the world in general. It is a natural enough fallacy, but it undoubtedly is a fallacy. And it's a fallacy which, when acted upon, as it so often is, can have terrible consequences, as so many of the people of Iraq, for example, have discovered to their cost.
One way in which the hegemony of powerful states is protected and enhanced, as we know, is by the manipulation of information. This is often done cynically, to gain advantage, with an 'ends justifies the means' mindset. Often though, it is done quite 'unconsciously', as with any individual who's instinct is to survive and thrive, often at the expense of those around her, without giving a great deal of thought to the matter. Again, in the recent case of the invasion of Iraq, we see, in my view, a combination of cynicism and unconscious motivation, which, while understandable - I don't condemn the USA, for I think any other nation in its position would do much the same - was highly regrettable from the point of view of many non-US citizens [and for quite a few US citizens]. Organisations like Wikileaks are trying to open up, as much as possible, to the rest of the world, the kinds of deals and deliberations that go on in the world of diplomacy and official international relations, a world which, I think, is overly elitist and arrogant in its treatment of the ordinary people most often destined to suffer from their high-handed decisions. Of course the establishment see this as a major threat to their assumed authority, and they will pound out the rhetoric accordingly. We should take this rhetoric with a generous measure of salt, but we should also note that these people have the power to 'act dirty' as well as to 'talk dirty', as Bradley Manning, and others I'm sure, have discovered. Their suffering should not go unrecognised.
I note in passing that the activities of the Wikileaks organisation, and their ethical implications have come under much scrutiny from the blogosphere and various online sites. Many of the commentators are professional philosophers and experienced political pundits, and I welcome their scrutiny. Some have expressed reservations about our activities, others have offered more or less qualified support. All have been far more nuanced, thoughtful and measured than the establishment figures in the US government and their staunchest allies. However, in spite of their rhetoric, and in spite of what they try to do to me personally, they will not be able to control this debate, nor will they be able to control the spread of information and knowledge which, horror of horrors, will not always be in their best interests. Lash out as they might, control of information will continue to slip from their grasp. Time for a rethink, ladies and gentlemen.

I should also say that I very much enjoyed Jason Rosenhouse's clear-minded critique of Michael Ruse here. Rosenhouse has done much to sharpen my own thinking regarding science, religion, conflict and compatibility, and it's a pleasure to see him back on that task again, after something of an absence.

Friday, December 17, 2010

a few little thoughts on the Assange case

I haven't been following the Julian Assange case too closely, but of course I'm interested in it, with its issues of freedom of information, the exercise of power and the nature of diplomacy, as well as the other issues around sexual assault, the justice system and the likelihood of political interference. Since I've only heard bits and pieces about the assault issue, including claims that it was a borderline case, that it had already been dropped some months ago for lack of evidence, and that the Swedish judiciary have been behaving with a sudden unwonted heavy-handedness, I thought that I might try to get my head around what's been going on, for my own sake. For the fact is that it's, dare I say, fun like a thriller, but of course with a great deal more reality in terms of weight and repercussions.
However, I don't think I will write extensively on it, as so many others are doing so, people better qualified than myself. This brief piece at three quarks captures some of my concerns though.
Questions arise. Since the assault case was dropped for lack of evidence last August [the day after the charge was issued], is there new evidence in this new charge? Charge or charges? If there are are no new charges, how can the case be reopened? What exactly are the charges? Why is this case so obviously being treated differently from other sexual assault cases? I happen to have some familiarity with such charges and accusations. A person accused of sexual assault - and he hadn't even been charged, he was merely taken into custody at the request of Swedish authorities - would not normally be placed in solitary confinement while in custody. Whatever for? It's the sort of treatment you'd expect to be meted out to someone suspected of espionage or something.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 2

The announcement in Matthew is strikingly different. Not only is it more cursory than in Luke, but it is made after Mary's conception:
The birth of Jesus the Anointed took place as follows: While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they slept together, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit. Since Joseph her husband was a good man and did not wish to expose her publicly, he planned to break off their engagement quietly. While he was thinking about these things a messenger of the Lord surprised him in a dream with these words: 'Joseph, descendant of David, don't hesitate to take Mary as your wife, since the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. This means 'he will save his people from their sins' [Matthew 1 18-22].
So, the messenger, not specified as Gabriel, visits Joseph rather than Mary, after she has found herself to be pregnant and after she has told him, which she may well have delayed doing, considering their unmarried state, until it couldn't be hidden. If Mary was young and naive, she may well not have known of her state until she was well on. So we're talking four weeks minimum after conception, and probably much later.
So how would our Tardis team deal with these grossly contradictory accounts? Clearly we would need sufficient facts, or leads, to place us in the right place at the right time. Luke's gospel gives us an 'announcement' place - 'a city in Galilee called Nazareth', though the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Nazareth would've been no more than a small village in Jesus's time [blessed news for the Tardis team]. Matthew's gospel doesn't specify a place, but tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, some seventy miles south of Nazareth - a few days by donkey.
However, all of this 'where' information is useless without further information as to when. 

To find out more, we turn to the birth itself, and again we find two seriously incompatible stories, leading us to be sceptical of both. We'll look at Matthew first this time: 
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king [Matthew 2:1]. 
A very useful lead, but unfortunately for our team, Herod's reign was a long one, from around 37BCE to 5 or 4BCE.We know of course that the official year of his birth marks year zero in our calendar, but if Matthew's gospel is to be relied on here [and I see no reason why it should be], his birthdate is out by four to thirty-seven years. And there's no obvious reason to assume it's closer to four than thirty-seven. That's a long period to stake out. Let's see if we can reduce it.
In chapter two of Matthew, one event is mentioned which is so strikingly horrific that it just might provide a lead for us, before we even embark on our expedition:
When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding regions two years old and younger [Matthew 2: 16]
Surely such a regally sanctioned massacre, in the reign of such a well-known monarch, would be in the historical records, giving us a date to go on? The answer is no. The infamous massacre of the innocents mentioned in Matthew isn't corroborated anywhere else, in spite of a great deal being known of Herod's reign. Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the period, doesn't mention it. However, it was a very bloody reign, especially in the last years, and it's just possible that this local massacre got lost amongst the general carnage. After all, if we exclude Jerusalem, the number of slaughtered children in and around Bethlehem may not have been great. At least we can point to the last years of Herod as being slightly more likely as the birth period.
However, there's an argument which tells against this massacre having occurred, and of the consequences for Jesus, who was described as having escaped with his family to Egypt. Matthew's gospel is obsessed, it seems, with the fulfilment of prophecy, and this leads me to wonder if certain events are fashioned to fulfil those prophecies. For example, on the massacre, Matthew writes:
With this event the prediction made by the prophet Jeremiah came true: In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: they were no more [Matthew 2: 18]  
The reference is to Jeremiah 31:15. I don't for a moment believe this passage was an accurate prophecy of Herod's behaviour centuries later - Ramah was more or less in the vicinity of Bethlehem, but these prophecies were generally written after the events prophesied had occurred, so it probably referred to the invasion of the Assyrians, or the later invasion of the Babylonians - but it does indicate that Matthew was prepared to shape the tale to fit his propagandist intent. And of course it's quite possible, even likely, that the whole story was filched from the old testament tale of events surrounding the child Moses:
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” [Exodus 1:22, NIV]
So where does this leave us? Nowhere clear, and with a heightened scepticism of the Matthew gospel. The period of exile in Egypt was also claimed as a fulfilment of prophecy:
So Joseph got ready and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt. There they remained until Herod's death. This happened so the Lord's prediction would come true: 'Out of Egypt I have called my son'.
The Old Testament reference here is Hosea 11: 1, but note the whole verse:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son'.
To me, at least, the manipulation here is palpable. Hosea is speaking with the voice of 'the Lord', speaking of his 'child', the chosen people of Israel. The reference is clear - it's about the soi-disant exile from Egypt of a whole people, and their wandering in the wilderness. So the Matthew gospeller is being pretty audacious in substituting Jesus and family for the whole Jewish nation. Amongst other things, this tale is meant to emphasise Jesus's role as a particularly Jewish saviour, rather than the son of God. It comes to seem all the more unreliable as the birth story of any real person. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 1

some useful resources 

I recently read an atheist blogger commenting that 'so-and-so is much more extreme than me - he doesn't believe Jesus ever existed'. Though I have an open mind on the matter, I don't consider such a position to be particularly extreme, and - as with Mohammed - there are many bits of the Jesus story, as told in the canonical gospels, that are incontrovertibly, though of course not uncontroversially, fictional.
We'll never know for sure, and for sure we'll never stop speculating. I've long had a fantasy about time travel - imagine if we developed a 'space-time' capsule along the line of Doctor Who's Tardis, which could take us back to any time and place to find out what really happened. I have to say that, until a few years ago, the resolution of the Jesus question wouldn't have been a priority for me as Tardis skipper. Uncovering the real life and achievements of Archimedes, say, or the quasi-mythical Socrates, or taking a tour through the great library of Alexandria, these would've been more to my perverse and desperately elitist taste. But the resurgence of popular debate on all matters theistic has got me hooked. So it's back to Palestine we go.
Of course, being a thorough-going amateur and dilettante, I'd have to fill my Tardis with a bunch of smarties - archaeologists, language specialists, New Testament scholars, pet theorists [within reason], cinematographers, journalists, and a really good comedian or two. However my Tardisy adventure would be unlike those of the good doctor in at least one vital respect - strict non-interference. My painstakingly selected team would, via the mechanism of compressional warp 15 hyper-reality fluxion drive, be able to observe the goings-on in and around Galilee for the period spanning the research target's presumed immaculate conception, birth, peregrinations, trial, death and resurrection, without our presence being detected by said target or any of his fellow-travellers. The same mechanism would of course allow us to complete this exploratory journey and fifty-year mapping exercise [from about 10BCE to 40CE] in one solitary day. We should be back in time to report our findings for the seven o'clock news.
So what would we find, and what would we look for? Well, we're going to let the gospels be our guide, and, though of course I would consult the afore-mentioned NT scholars, it's likely that the canonical gospels will be our main focus. There are or were fifty or so others at least, all in general agreement about the time of Jesus's life, but wildly diverging on his character and acts. Most of these gospels were written in the second century or later, and for various reasons have been discounted as accurate descriptions of the Life and Times. We have to limit our enquiry somehow, though we'll be looking out for any lead, no matter how unusual, as befits our professionalism. So let's begin at the beginning...

1. Annunciation and Conception [immaculate or otherwise]
Only two of the canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke, describe the conception and birth of Jesus, and their descriptions are hard to reconcile with each other. First, let's look at the announcement of the birth, traditionally associated with the archangel Gabriel [an archangel is a kind of top-class angel, a feature of all three Abrahamic religions]. Christians call this the Annunciation and celebrate it, unsurprisingly, on March 25. However, Gabriel is only mentioned in Luke [I use the Jesus Seminar's Five Gospels version]:
In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. He entered and said to her, 'Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!' But she was deeply disturbed by the words, and wondered what this greeting could mean. The heavenly messenger said to her, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Listen to me: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever; and his dominion will have no end.'
And Mary said to the messenger, 'How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?'
The messenger replied, 'The holy spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you. This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God. Further, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age. She who was said to be infertile is already six months along, since nothing is impossible with God.'
And Mary said, 'Here I am, the Lord's slave. May everything you have said come true.' Then the heavenly messenger left her [Luke 1: 26-38]. 
Apologies for the length of this quote, but it's quite important for the initial identification of our subject. And clearly there are problems from the outset. Firstly, it's announced that this special person, Jesus, will be born to a woman engaged to Joseph, of the house of David. Jesus's future greatness is foretold, but essentially as heir to the throne of David, a probably mythical early ruler of the probably mythical Kingdom of Judah. The Old Testament is a text largely devoted to the promotion of this Kingdom, but unfortunately there isn't a scrap of evidence outside the OT to verify David's existence. One piece of archaeological evidence, the Tel Dan stele, discovered only in the 1990s, created great excitement as apparently featuring the words 'House of David', in early Aramaic or Hebrew, in an account of the victories of a king of Damascus, a rival of the more southerly Judean peoples. While this was an important find, it hardly proves the existence of David - rather it tends to say something about the self-identification of the Judeans - just as the Romans identified themselves as the descendants of Romulus and Remus.
In any case there is a problem with Jesus being identified so clearly with a former Judean king. Luke also provides a genealogy [Luke 3 23-38] tracing Jesus back to Adam, through David. Notoriously, Matthew also provides a genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham, and which counts only 27 generations back to David, compared to Luke's 41. Only a few of the names are the same. The most likely explanation for all this is that both genealogies are entirely bogus. Proper lineages were very important for claimants to kingdoms, as you would expect, and supporters of particular claimants were not above inventing them. What the genealogies do indicate, though, is that, first and foremost, Jesus is being claimed as a Jewish messiah. If the emphasis was on Jesus as the son of God, immaculately conceived via a virgin, his male descent would clearly be irrelevant.