Ways and Means

In my field of history of religions we often speak of a kind of written/unwritten “Master Narrative” that is taken as an assumed “given,”  laying out fundamental values, assumptions, goals, and directions—with prescriptions of human purpose, place, and meaning. Sometimes it might be represented in a single literary work. For example, in my field often called “Christian Origins,”  the Book of Acts in the New Testament becomes the master narrative for understanding early Christianity. Of course historians regularly attempt to question, poke at, and even dismantle such singular and simplistic stories of “the way things were.” My colleague at Notre Dame in the 1980s, Robert Wilken, lays out the parameters of such a critique in his classic 1971 work, The Myth of Christian Beginnings.[1]In this challenging and vividly written book Dr. Wilken shows that there never was a golden age in the Christian past. Christian hope did not come to fulfillment in the age of apostles, nor in the … Continue reading

Diversity and complexity are perhaps the most persistent realities of human experience—individual as well as collective—and the latter is of course amplified infinitely. Hitler had a “master story” that ended up moving masses to give their “last full measure of devotion” to a morally bankrupt vision of German’s future. The master narrative of American history for my post 1946 generation was imbibed in our mother’s milk growing up in the 1950s—the land of the free, home of the brave, you can be anything—all the Jeffersonian ideals and phrases. With some peanuts and crackerjacks thrown in.

Left out were the obvious. The corruptions and graft of all governments and systems of authority—including “democratic” ones. I just watched Oliver Stone’s new and chilling documentary, “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.” The new evidence left me stunned and horrified. Ken Burns has shown us all, perhaps more than any single filmmaker, countless examples of our failures and folly. But so much was driven by our imagined “master narrative”–from the horrors of slavery and its afterlives, and that tale of tales—the conquering of the “ Wild West,” with native Americans pushed into “tiny spaces” and basically eliminated. Playing “cowboys and Indians” was as common as “Hide and Go Seek” in my 1950s white suburban upbringing.  The Lone Ranger’s fight was for justice, truth, and the American way . Okay, well, true, there was Tonto.

And then there is that tragically embedded “master story” that humans are to “have dominion” over the earth and it creatures “great and small,” who can then be used and abused from birth to death for our dining pleasures–or driven to extinction by our disruptions on land and sea. After all, the Bible tells me so. At least Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden are given only plants to eat, but in the post-Flood world God grants humans permission to shed the blood of “every moving thing” (Genesis 1:29; 9:3). Aronofsky presents this in such a moving way in his film “Noah.” [2]See my blog post “Basher of the Noah film Need to Read their Bibles.”

Speaking of master stories, I just received this week a copy of the posthumous work of David Graeber and his archaeologist co-authorDavid Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Everything. I have read the main reviews but found this Youtube interview with Wengrow most enlightening: https://youtu.be/JDO28CPAPuM
[3]https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/11/graeber-wengrow-dawn-of-everything-history-humanity/620177; … Continue reading

Talk about smashing all master narratives. Arthur Koestler is surely one of our prime 20th century figures whose intellectual and political meanderings from 1926-1986 illustrate the process–from Darkness at Noon to Janus. [4]I am currently reading the marvelous 700 page biography by Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey Of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (NY: Random House, 2009), see the New York … Continue reading From Koestler’s disengagement from Zionism in Palestine under the spell of Jabotinsky, to his imprisonment by Franco in the Spanish Civil war, through his disenchantment with Stalinist Communism in Russia, and the horrors of Hitler’s invasion of Europe from which he barely escaped–the lesson was clear. Fascism is fascism by any name and in numerous garbs. His insightful novels and essays from the 1920s up through the end of WWII with its post-War rebuilding of democracies, at home or in colonial extensions, explore a singular issue: the struggle between “ends” and “means.” He had been on the wrong end of that rope pull initially but finally ended up affirming that ends must never justify means—but always would end up doing so.  Even in our daily individual choices we find that human place on planet earth is too complex for anyone to find a “clean place” to stand. Darkness at Noon becomes our extended experience. [5]Isn’t it more than ironic that the US House of Representatives has a “Ways & Means” Committee. One wonders if they might be able to sort out this eternal conumdrum

Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic cover this month is out, “The Bad Guys are Winning,” is a tough read. Heather Cox Richardson’s pre-Thanksgiving newsletter offers a long historical look at our totalitarian drift here at home, see  “Letters from an American, November 24, 2021.” The upcoming “Summits for Democracy” on December 9 and 10, 2021 “will bring together leaders from 110 countries who work in government, civil society, and the private sector, to come up with an agenda to renew democratic government and work together to keep the ideals of democracy strong.” Applebaum lays out the links among all these Alpha Males who run so much of the world—while the powerful “democracies” of the UK, EU, and the US are split 50/50 between the extremes of  right and left. And all the while the upper 3% worries mostly about maintenance and stability. Panic is the end of all master stories. A loss of faith in the entire enterprise.
Enough of these pre-Thanksgiving ramblings…let’s celebrate the Holy Trinity of Food, Family, and Football, along with the proverbial crazy uncle at the table tomorrow. After all, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags did indeed share a harvest celebration together at Plymouth in fall 1621. Sadly, that moment was soon besmirched by the long history of the settlers’ attacks on their Indigenous neighbors.

References

References
1In this challenging and vividly written book Dr. Wilken shows that there never was a golden age in the Christian past. Christian hope did not come to fulfillment in the age of apostles, nor in the time of Constantine, nor in the Middle Ages, nor during the Reformation, nor in the revivals of the 19th century, nor in the movements of renewal in our own time. Another such classic is Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity, also published in 1971. I was recently made aware of Jonathan Gottschalls’s new book, The Story Paradox: How our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down. He argues that there is a dark side to storytelling we can no longer ignore. Storytelling, the very tradition that built human civilization, may be the thing that destroys it. His proposal is that we stop asking, “How we can change the world through stories?” and start asking, “How can we save the world from stories?” I have it on my list for future reading
2See my blog post “Basher of the Noah film Need to Read their Bibles.”
3https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/11/graeber-wengrow-dawn-of-everything-history-humanity/620177; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/11/08/early-civilizations-had-it-all-figured-out-the-dawn-of-everything; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/31/arts/dawn-of-everything-graeber-wengrow.html
4I am currently reading the marvelous 700 page biography by Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey Of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (NY: Random House, 2009), see the New York Times review here.
5Isn’t it more than ironic that the US House of Representatives has a “Ways & Means” Committee. One wonders if they might be able to sort out this eternal conumdrum

The World is so Full of a Number of Things…

As I think of “retirement,” or more properly “transition” from student oriented life to my own research and projects—and outreach to a broader mass of “students” or at least comrades along the way, from my tiny corner of the human experience and endeavor, I have this sense of stable drifting and open seas. An overwhelming sense of finitude in our complex world of history, religions, cultures, politics, science, and philosophy. What matters most, is what matters most in my mind—and determining that is an ethical challenge. But the lines of the RLS children’s poem: “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings,” came to mind, and of course “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep…” Hoping to shine on!

Listening to that Cosmic Music by David S. Tabor

August 29th

Watching Ida–remembering Katrina– and also remembering one of the saddest evenings in my life, August 29, 2019 when we took my son David Shannon Tabor into MD Anderson and lost him in the wee hours of August 30th…Here is more about David and the remarkably gentle soul of light that he was. You can see it in his eyes and in his art.

https://jamestabor.com/remembering-david-s-tabor/

Koestler on that “Oceanic Feeling”

Arthur Koestler, according to his biographer Michael Scammell, was was the only significant writer to stare death in the face in the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939). This includes Hemingway, Dos Passos, Auden, Orwell, and many others who had flocked to Spain. His three months in prison in 1937, that he recounts in Dialogue with Death shook him to the core. For those readers not familiar the international efforts to oppose Franco, the Joris Evens 1937 film, Tierra Española, which Hemingway had been instrumental in bringing to the world, is available on Youtube. Day by day Koestler listened from his cell no. 40, as prisoners were being shot at midnight. He wrote prolifically, beginning to question whether revolutionary violence in the end violated the sanctity of life, and he scratched out Euclid’s theorem on the prison walls to keep his mind focused. During that period he was greatly influenced by reading Schopenhauer and corresponded with Thomas Mann. The prison’s confinement and the imminent possibility of death, plunged him deep into thoughts about the existential meaning of life. He experienced a transformative new consciousness–as he took flights of philosophical  contemplation. Scammell describes it this way:

Koestler concluded that his hours spent by the prison window scratching equations had brought mystical insights into another realm of being. He was filled ‘with a direct certainty that a higher order of reality existed, and that it alone invested existence with meaning.’ Koestler likened it to a ‘text written in invisible ink; though one could not read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the textual of one’s existence,’ and elsewhere compared it to Freud’s concept of the ‘oceanic feeling’ an overwhelming intuition about the infinite and the eternal that was the essence of religious faith (p.150).

For Koestler, at that moment, it was deep contemplation of the nature of math, but it could just as well be art or music or love or a thousand other numinous moments of insight in our lives. The metaphor of “invisible writing” gave him the title for volume two of his autobiography, The Invisible Writing (1954)–following Arrow in the Blue which had been published just two years earlier.

Three cosmic musicians by my late son David Tabor

I knew little of Koestler until age 32 when I encountered his most mature work titled Janus: A Summing Up, written forty years later. Koestler carried his “invisible writing” insight with him to the end. I will never forget how I read Janus in one sitting  through the evening, into the night, finishing it early the early morning as the sun rose. It put me in a kind of trance. I just went and pulled the book from my shelf, reminding myself of that May 19, 1978 morning; I wrote inside the front cover, in my tiny scrawled script, the following, with a flair of youthful enthusiasm:

It had a profound impression on me and my life at that time and that influence on my thinking has endured now for forty-three years, corresponding to the beginning of my teaching career at Notre Dame in 1979. Koestler died on March 1, 1983, a day before my 37th birthday.

Freud, of course, thought that any such flights of fantasy were just that–illusion to shield one from facing the ultimate truth–namely death as the permanent cession of the self.[1]In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the … Continue readingErnest Becker, in his profound work, Denial of Death, published in 1973, expounding Freud and Norman O. Brown–succeeds brilliantly in following that line of thought to its stark conclusion–namely our futile and illusionary attempts to imagine our human existence “matters” to any kind of higher order of reality.

Koestler had no “illusions” about his bold proposal that amounted to a rejection of “materialism” without advocating any kind of conventional “dualism.” He wrote in his opening Author’s Note that he hoped his final proposal might throw some light on the human condition and contain a “shadowy pattern of truth.”

References

References
1In a 1927 letter to Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the source of all the religious energy that permeates in various religious systems, and one may justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one renounces every belief and every illusion.

That Force of all Forces…

When I speak of God, that word means to me the unseen force of all forces that drives this universe and cosmos of which we are cognizant and makes you and me the creatures we are with all the mystical existence we know and enjoy upon this earth.

Jack Pyle, Memoir to his Family

In Hebrew “God” is ‘EL which roughly translates as “Force” or “Power,” and the plural, with a singular verb ‘ELOHIM–could be understood as “that Force of all Forces,” akin then to ‘EL ‘ELYON–traditionally translated The Most High, but again, quite literally, “the highest Force.” All of this was well expressed by my friend Jack Pyle, former minister and author of a fine semi-autobiographical book, The End of All Things Is at Hand: A Personal Journey from Apocalyptic Fears to Historical Reality–about how biblical apocalypticism, both ancient and modern, is a flawed and failed enterprise. I highly recommend his book.

Why Rejecting the Category of the “Supernatural” Can Be a “Spiritual” Step Forward

I think the main problem in discussions between theists and atheists is the assumption that static categories like “the Divine,” the “supernatural,” the “natural,” and the “material” exist other than as our dualistic semantic projections upon the whole of reality as we can perceive it. Our experiences are never reductionistically “materialistic,” even in the proverbial “hard, cold” lab. Process theism, by whatever name (Whitehead, Hartshorne) seems a better way of thinking about our “reality” even if “God” might not be the word one choses to use, given the connotations from “Classic” theism (omniscience and omnipotence).

Bottom line: the very nature of reality presents us with what appear to be “mechanistic” “time and chance” “atoms and the void” phenomenon (as per Jacques Monod), but also “mind” “thought” and other transcendent “spiritualist” phenomenon as well, that seem to exhibit will, reason, and the aesthetic–hence this very blog, this topic, and the any discussion thereof. It is a simple truism that there is no way to step outside of things and make “meaningful” nihilistic declarations about the non-meaning or hyper-subjectivity of our existence. As the old joke goes: “There are no absolutes?–Are you absolutely sure of that?”

“Mind and Matter”are no opposing realities but of one whole “panentheistic” reality as witnessed by our every thought and word.  Most of us agree that “magical” thinking is not a credible casual factor in our universe (angels, demons, fairies, and projected illusions) but who among us can reduce to the “normal” or the purely “material” (i.e., the four forces/fields of gravity, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear) our wondrous and marvelous minds and our common as well as not-so-common experiences of reality? In other words, all natural phenonema are by definition supra-natural, if by “natural” one means a truncated mechanistic view of both our inner realities and all that we experience in our world of “nature.”

So in the silence of the soul I listen for the still small voice, which is God’s call to each of us to engage in the work of love and creativity, to bring new life into the world, and to care for it and nurture it during its years of vulnerability. And whenever I see people engaged in that work of love, I sense the divine presence brushing us with a touch so gentle you can miss it, and yet know beyond all possibility of doubt that this is what we are called on to live for, to ease the pain of those who suffer and become an agent of hope in the world. That is a meaningful life. That is what life is when lived in the light of God’s presence, in answer to his call” Rabbi Jonathan Sachs

Our deepest sense of value and meaning in this world are not an anomaly or fluke, projected onto an otherwise uncaring universe. This inner sense of self is not somehow “outside” reality, and thus unreflective of its fundamental nature. Our capacities of self-consciousness, our sense of time, our existential becoming, is emergent from the “ground of being,” that nameless process rooted in the most fundamental reality. Our best clue as to the deeper nature of nature is our inner selves, reflective of the inherent capacities of reality–defined simply as “what is.” Cogito, ergo sum is not a bad beginning, if one can excise the dualism of Western language and assumptions. Whitehead called it panentheism. JDT
When I heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I knew there was joy at the heart of the universe. Paul Claudel

 

Outside the Gates of Eden

“Satan” (שׂטן) in the Hebrew Bible, is used as a verb or a noun. It means “the one opposing,” in a very generic way , totally unlike in the New Testament and other late 2nd Temple period Jewish literature when a Great Satan was created as a “God of all the earth,” and was appropriated with great relish by both Jews and Christians to explain the so-called “problem of Evil” (aka “blame it on the Devil” theodicy) We all face many satans every day, from people, to circumstances, to our own inner states of mind with our conflicting thoughts. The realities of the “tree of the ‘knowledge’ (opposition/discernment) of good and bad,” which represents our choices up against all “satans,” are still with us, and we have all “bitten into the root of the forbidden fruit, with the juice running down our legs” That’s a quote from Dylan (aka Bobby Z, the Jewish Theologian) in case you missed it. But that is what life is all about, “outside the Gates of Eden.” Given “reality,” (void, matter, chaos, ordering, free choice, good & bad), and what else is there but fantasy and delusion, that is what must be. For more, from the late Prof. Frank Moore Cross and from me, see: “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament.”

Being a Hebrew in 2021…

So in some metaphorical way I guess you can call me a “Hebrew,” one who wants to leave behind the “Babylonian” ways of our world, and with Abraham,  walk before and toward “completion,” toward an unknown land of promise–a dream fulfilled. In that dream  the broader household of Abrahamic faith reflects the ways of truth, justice, love, and righteousness, and the “God of all the earth,” in good Whiteheadian fashion, mirrors our own microcosmic sense of justice and truth or is broken and cast aside as another idol (Genesis 18:19-25).

Life Itself…

Life brings you to your knees it brings you lower than you think you can go. But if you go just a little further, you will find love. 

“Life Itself” (2018), Dan Fogelman

I love Fogelman’s 2018 film “Life Itself.” I watched it for the second time last night. The critics hate it, giving it dismal ratings. They find it trite, simplistic, sobby, vapid. I find it profound and moving to the core–and viewers give it ratings in the 90s. It has a wonderful cast: Olivia Wild, Oscar Isaac, Anette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, to name a few. Wonderfully narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and Lorenzo Izzo. That narration carries much of the punch, it is brilliantly done. Dylan’s “Time out of Mind” soundtrack runs through the whole and frames the story so movingly and profoundly. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, and perhaps other services. I highly recommend. I also love “This is Us” which is Fogelman’s 2018 series. Here is a nice interview with Fogelman and some of the actors. https://youtu.be/2msIDrPi4M8