Sep 012006
 

 

In discussing Islam on another website, the argument was made that because Islam does not regard Jesus as God, and because the Bible clearly DOES teach that Jesus is God, Islam rejects the Bible. A variation of the same sort of argument is often used against various groups claiming to be Christians. Since they don't believe orthodox teaching, and since the Bible “clearly teaches” orthodoxy, then these groups are not Christians.

 

 

While I have no intention of defending everything that Islam or every heterodox Christian group believes in, the argument above is presumptuous and unhistorical.

 

 

Even using the books of the Bible that we have come to regard as canonical (our current New Testament for example) there was a tremendous battle over such questions as the divinity of Jesus. For a number of years, Arianism (which taught that Jesus was a divine, but CREATED being – inferior to the Father) was the dominant viewpoint in Christianity – and they had plenty of verses in our current New Testament to back them up. Jehovah's Witnesses believe much the same thing today.

 

 

But what we also need to realize is that our current New Testament was specifically selected by the proto-orthodox Christians. The Gospels we have (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were not the only Gospels circulating in the early Church. The epistles and apocrypha we have in our current Bible are not the only ones that could have been selected. The ones that were selected were chosen PRIMARILY because they taught the orthodox viewpoint.

 

 

There were many groups of Christians in the early Church. The range of their beliefs was even more diverse that our modern versions of Christianity. Each group had it's own collection of writings – of Gospels and epistles and apocryphas – that supported its own point of view.

 

 

One of the earliest groups in Jerusalem were the Ebionites. Their beliefs were in many ways similar to Islam. They believed Jesus was a great prophet – but only a human being. He had come to revitalize Judaism and set it on the right path.

 

 

Then there were the Marcionites, to whom Jesus was not human at ALL. He was entirely God, and his humanity was simply a facade. To the Marcionites, Judiasm was a false religion created by a false god from whom Jesus had come to set us free.

 

 

All of these groups, as well as the proto-orthodox, who staked out a middle ground on the nature of Jesus, had scriptures to support their theology. But once the proto-orthodox position became the dominant one in Rome, Rome used its political influence to not only exclude other points of view – but to create a list of scriptures that ALSO excluded other points of view. Scriptures that didn't fit the proto-orthodox theology were destroyed or hidden. In spite of this, there were enough remnants of divergent points of view left in the canonical scriptures to keep the orthodox arguing about the nature of Jesus for centuries

 

 

An excellent book on this by one of my favorite scripture scholars (Bart Ehrman) is:

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew

 

 

The point of the proceeding is that it is circular to claim that the Bible obviously proves orthodoxy when the Bible was specifically selected and edited to prove orthodoxy. Even with the aggressive selecting and editing (and even forging) there is enough variety in the Bible to have kept Christians arguing for centuries. The nature of Jesus is not “obvious” from the Bible, and Islam, for all it's peculiarities is not “obviously” trying to be anti-biblical (much less anti-Jesus) by questioning orthodox dogma.

Aug 072006
 

The following message was posted on a religious discussion board I visit:

 

 >>Why are we trying to help Israel's enemies by trying to get a cease-fire and suppling Lebanon with red cross supplies and help. This is Israel's enemy. The land of Lebanon is land that was given to Israel anyway. 

>>The Lord said to Abraham in Gen. 12:3—- "I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. 


It has been felt by a number of Christians that the state of Israel is a fulfillment of God's promises; that it is established by God, and that we are under a moral obligation to support Israel no matter what Israel does. I wanted to make a few observations on this view: 

How was Israel Created

 First of all, the creation of the state of Israel was on the order of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was conceived by religious Jews, who wanted to see the prophecy fulfilled, and supported by influential Christians who also believed the prophecies applied to the Jews and wanted to see them fulfilled. Luckily, it happened to coincide with the purposes of England, which realized that a Jewish state in Palestine would further their aims in the region. 

But does this self-fulfilling and politically motivated restoration of Israel really fulfill prophecy? Let’s examine a few of these scriptural prophecies in more detail:

 

Prophecies of the Restoration of Israel

 “And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the LORD thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.” (De 30:1-3 AV) 

This is one of the earliest, from Deuteronomy. God promises to restore Israel from all the nations where they have been scattered. But notice the conditions. This only happens when all the people of Israel return to the Lord and obey his voice with their whole heart and soul.

 

Let’s take a few more prophecies.

 “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa 35:8-10 AV) 

Notice again, those who return to Israel are pure, clean, redeemed and come singing and praising. In fact, no wicked person can enter.

 “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Eze 36:24-28 AV) 

Once again, the return of Israel to their own land is to be accompanied directly by a total spiritual renewal.

 

There are many similar examples. In nearly every case, prophecy of the return of Israel to their land is accompanied by, or even preceded by,  a tremendous national spiritual renewal, so that all nations will know that God is blessing Israel because of their faith in him. In fact, the mechanics of the restoration of Israel were largely secular and quite violent. Much of what went on in the early days of settlement had disturbing similarities to some of the terrorist violence that occurs now (except also perpetrated by Israeli settlers).  The state of Israel is not a particularly religious nation. In fact, it's unusually NON-religious. 54% of Israelis identify themselves as secular or non-religious. 15-37% of Israelis positively identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. Israel is #19 in the list of the top atheistic countries on the planet. By contrast, less than 3% of the people in Lebanon are atheists, and less than 1% of the Middle East in general. (http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/atheism.html)

 

There are other aspects of the prophecies that are similarly bad fits. Most of them, for example, also predict the return of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Ephraim. But alas, the lost tribes are still lost, and show no signs of returning.

 

What, then, of the fulfillment of these prophecies?

 

The True Meaning of Israel

 

I believe we can make a strong, compelling case that the ancient prophecies regarding Israel are to be understood by Christians only as spiritual metaphors, which apply to God’s Kingdom as taught by Jesus. Each individual member of the human race is fallen and scattered until brought back and restored to the promised Kingdom of God by grace. Consider the following scriptures in that light:

 “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.” (Lu 14:23-24 AV) This is generally understood as applying to the rejection of Israel in the gospel kingdom in favor of the Gentiles. “Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” (Mt 21:42-43 AV) 

Same sentiment.

 “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Ro 2:28-29 AV) Paul confirms that in Christianity, it is inner grace and not racial ancestry which brings one into the spiritual convenant. “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:” (Ro 4:13-14 AV) Paul clearly states that the promises of Abraham are to those who have faith, including Gentiles – and are NOT promises to one racial group or to the Jews in general.

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Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ …For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Ga 3:16, 27-29 AV) 

Notice Paul’s argument. The promise is not to Abraham’s SEEDS (the Jews) but to Abraham’s SEED (Jesus). We are partakers of the promise because we are make one with Jesus – and in this “putting on” Jews are at no special advantage.

 

Application to the Secular Israel

 

The creation of the state of Israel, then, is not a fulfillment of a prophecy. It is an act of politics and statecraft. Secular Israel is not specially favored by God, and there are no curses in store for us if we criticize some of Israel’s actions or send humanitarian aid to the victims of war. Israel does not have divine sanction for some kind of double-standard. It ought to be as morally bound by decency and the common standards of humanity – as expressed in international laws and agreements – as any other country.

 

It is particularly upsetting to see Christians in America giving blanket approval to Israel when its attacks kill civilians in Palestine and Lebanon – two of the areas with the highest proportion of Christians in the area. The Greek Orthodox Churches in the area have spoken strongly against Israel’s actions – and the patriarch himself has on at least one occasion been hauled off for interrogation by Israel because of his stand for the human rights of Palestinians. Christians as well as Muslims are being systematically expelled from Jerusalem through the vehicle of denying them the permits required to live there.

 

What Would Jesus REALLY Do?

 

I find it especially chilling, however, that the poster of the message above threatens us with divine wrath simply for providing medical aid. It’s time to look down at your designer WWJD jewelry and ask what Jesus would do if approached by his traditional enemies for help. How did he treat Romans, for example, or Samaritans? What did he instruct us?

 “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39 AV) “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-48 AV) Understand what Jesus is saying here. He clearly understands that some scriptures in the Old Testament tell people to exact stern justice and be ferocious with our enemies, and he is SPECIFICALLY CONTRADICTING that. His followers are no longer to behave like the marauding warriors and imperial conquerors of the age of the judges and the kings. We are NO LONGER TO LOOK TO THE OLD TESTAMENT as the final standard for how to treat each other. The New Covenant is upon us.  And in the New Covenant, there is neither Jew nor Greek, Israeli or Arab. There is only Christ.

Jul 282006
 

Someone asked me a question below that I started with an easy answer to, but which grows a bit more interesting the more I think about it. Basically, his point was that, given there is a metaphysical/mystical meaning that can be found in the gospel accounts of Jesus (as there is in the accounts of other religions.) Can we simply discard the historical reality of the gospels? regard them simply as “myths” and still derive all the benefit or effect that they are intended to have? Can we still have Christianity without a historical Jesus?

Of course, most Christians would answer with an emphatic “NO!” citing such scriptures as “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17) To such Christians, the literal, historical facts ARE what Christianity is all about. But I’m not so sure it’s a simple black and white dilemma between regarding the gospels, with scholarly detachment, as interesting myths (which I agree has very little personal benefit) and regarding them as scrupulously literal history.

Malcolm Muggeridge suggested that the truths of the gospel were “artistic truths” or we might say “mystical truths” which he regarded as infinitely more important than historical truths. I can see a lot of merit to his reasoning. Which is more important? that God loves us, or exactly what words Jesus said from the cross?

C. S. Lewis seems to imply something similar in his children’s tale “The Silver Chair”. In that Lewis told a story of several children, accompanied by a strange pessimistic creature called a “marshwiggle” named “Puddleglum” who descend from the kingdom of Narnia, ruled by the good lion Aslan (Jesus) and enter a subterranean kingdom ruled by a witch-queen to try to rescue a kidnapped prince. Once there, the witch puts them under a spell of confusion and forgetfulness. She gradually convinces the children that there IS no world above ground, no sun, no sky, no Aslan. They become convinced that these are all simply children’s tales and dreams – projections they have created in their minds from the drab and ordinary objects in the miserable underground world ruled by the witch. Only Puddleglum rebels.

“One word, Ma’am” he says to the witch, “All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face on I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we HAVE only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours IS the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Now of course, in Lewis’ story, Narnia is very real indeed, and the doubt only an illusion. But I think Puddleglum’s point has wisdom nonetheless. You’d be better off living your life as a Narnian than to content yourself with strict materialism. The truths of Narnia were a good deal more important than the bare rock and the darkness.

Important mythical truths tend to be felt as having a very solid reality – a reality that seems to yearn for physical expression. Take for example the recently created myth of ?The Lord of the Rings?. My children became so enthralled with this myth that they began to speculate if there couldn?t have been a time in history, or pre-history, or (if all else fails) a parallel dimension that actually exists wherein this world is REAL (They felt the same way about Narnia when they read THOSE books 😉 The point is, I think human beings sense very deeply that mythic truth is indeed Truth, and tend to associate historical truth with it. I have to admit, for example, that when I read the Bahagavad Gita, I find it very easy to feel a strong sense of “reality” about the personality of Krishna. Furthermore, Jung would contend that powerful mythic archetypes tend to actually PRODUCE in historical reality, embodiments.

In summary – I think one could get some benefit as a mystic out of the Christian gospel while doubting its historical elements. But ONLY by realizing the following: mythic truth is not LESS real than historical truth, it is MORE real.

Take the case of the Catholic who has an intimate, intercessory prayer relationship with some saint who’s historical existence is now in doubt. St. Christopher or St. Philomena for example. I’ve asked St. Philomena for intercession myself – even knowing that virtually everything we know about her is based on conjecture, or ecstatic religious visions. To me, she represents a part of God that is very much interested in me – regardless of the historical details that may or may not have embodied that part of God. On the other hand, for many people, the importance of the historical reality is so powerful in their minds that prayers to a saint of dubious authenticity are useless, as would be Christianity, were it not historically literal to a very high degree.

Jul 272006
 

Explorers of the “inner world” of human consciousness – mystics, shamans, monks, prophets and students of metaphysics as well as (in more recent times) scientists in such areas as psychology and congnition – have discovered and mapped out a number of very interesting states of awareness which human beings can achieve.

These states of awareness can involve experiences like the following:

A profound experience of the essential unity of all things.

The dissolving of boundaries between self and other, object and subject.

An experience of a profound stillness underlying all things.

A sense of absolute love.

A sense of complete bliss.

A sense of great intelligence and purpose underlying all things.

I’ll keep the list short for the time being. To explorers returning from these states, the normal world, and the normal state of awareness can seem, in comparison, to be an illusion, or even an illness. With practice, the inner explorer can learn to carry some of this awareness with him back into normal life. Some people, in fact, achieve this awareness in a sudden, shocking experience and retain much of it on a semi-permanent basis.

Individuals with this altered perspective offer interesting observations about our normal human problems. Our real true, essence and identity, say these teachers, is this universal, loving, interconnected reality. Nearly all our human problems, say the teachers, arise from our seeing ourselves as separate entities, cut off from and in competition with, all the other separate, isolated entities.

To the mystic, pride makes no sense. All things are one. No imagined part of the whole is more important than any other part..

To the mystic, greed and theft makes no sense. Why take from one part of the whole to give to another part of the whole?

To the mystic, violence makes no sense. Do the branches of one tree war with each other? Why should one part of the whole hurt another part of the whole?

Now it’s true that by teaching social mores, it is possible to instill a minimum standard of behavior in most people. You can make people afraid of the law, or afraid of the wrath of God, or afraid of public ridicule. You can promise them rewards for obedience and punishments for failure. This will work to some extent (and is probably critical for society to survive at all) If you are particularly successful, you can get quite a few individuals motivated primarily by pride – by the desire to see themselves as decent, moral people and collect the psychological reward that the mores permit to such people.

But with all your mores, you are still contending against the basic limited, isolated perspective of the individual ego. Individuals will still feel great motivation to break social mores when they can get away with it if those mores conflict strongly enough with their individual desires.

The mystic, on the other hand, is in an entirely different position. The mystic is loving and generous and humble and peaceful simply because these are the only behaviors that make sense in the alternate awareness. There is no need to enforce social mores on the mystic. In fact, the mystic, in the role of prophet – is likely to be one of the first to point out the injustices and inequities associated with whatever version of the social mores you are working with.

— Ok, moving to the realm of the religious It is my belief that experience of the alternate awareness is in fact a glimpse of the reality which underlies all higher religion. Different religions use different vocabularies to describe it, and add quite a few other trappings and extras. You ask whether when I say that the guidance of the Spirit is the key, whether by “Spirit” I mean the soul of the individual, or the Holy Ghost. But the problem is that at this higher level of awareness, the two tend to merge. The higher Self IS God, and is the Spirit, which is also the Holy Ghost. So when I say the guidance of the Spirit is necessary, I mean an openness to this alternate awareness.

Now it’s quite true that many religious people aren’t operating from a knowledge of the alternate awareness. For them, Christianity is simply a divinely dictated set of social mores, enforced with eternal rewards and punishments. And this isn’t a bad thing, from one perspective. God is a more omnipresent observer and enforcer, in this system, than any policeman.

But I think there is a lot of evidence in the scripture that Jesus and the prophets before him and the apostles after him were actually calling on as many as possible to make the jump to a higher awareness perspective of morality. A few examples:

“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts [as opposed to outward law]; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31: 33–34)

“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45)

“That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph 3:16–19)

Turning at last to the point on which I believe we might disagree. I expect you would probably say “All this inner awareness stuff is fine – but it’s not real. It’s just something in your own mind”.

I don’t accept that things that the things in the “inner world” are less real than the things in the outer. In fact, I think the opposite is probably true. The outer world only has reality by virtue of being present in our own minds. The experiences of the inner world are capable of systematic, repeatable observation just as the experiences of the outer world are, and are just as “real” – although they are a different order of reality.

Jul 272006
 

While thinking about the issue of Gnosticism and the problem of evil, I suddenly had what was (to me at least) a very powerful “ah ha” moment. Of course, once written down and shared, it will probably seem mundane or even stupidly obvious. But at the time it was like a bolt of lightening from heaven.

The insight was this: Whatever the literal truth or falsehood – Gnosticism is actually a very perceptive metaphor on the problem of pain and evil. It hit me as I was reading something in a Gnostic text and realized it was very similar to something both Robert Pirsig and Ken Wilber had said. Both these writers point out a particular hierarchy of being – one I think we would all agree with. You can divide it up in more than one way – but it goes something like this:

The Hierarchy of Being

The foundational structures of the cosmos are physical – in the sense of being governed by chemistry and physics. Then there are biological structures built from the physical. Then there are social structures built from the biological. Then there are the mental structures of ideas that are built from social dialogue. You can add a layer of spiritual structures, but since that will be an item of dispute, let’s just lump it in with mental for the moment. Each of these structures is built on the preceding ones. Biological systems use physical systems. Social systems use biological systems (people) and physical systems (technologies). Mental systems use social systems (communal dialogue), biological systems (our brains) and physical systems (the neurochemistry of the brain).

Contrary Purposes

Now for a critical observation – each of these levels have entirely different – even contradictory – purposes, laws and goals. For example, entropy (The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to devolve into a state of inert uniformity and disorder) is a fundamental principle of the physical cosmos. But biology is in a state of war with entropy. Biology is a system for increasing the order and energy in the small local pocket of it’s own system. Biology has its own laws and goals – which center on the survival of the individual organism and its reproduction at the expense of all else. But at the social level, these biological goals – unchecked, become evils. Societies may choose to sacrifice their own individual members for the good of the society – if they threaten the social stability, for example. Then from these societies and their interactions, systems of ideas arise. And what a society may see as “good” for its survival and prosperity (slavery for example) the arising system of ideas may see as evil. In the West, we have a developed a system of ideas which demands that we tolerate (for the sake of the IDEA of liberty) the existence of certain things which may pose a danger to the social order – reformers or crackpots as the case may be.

The point is, at each point in the hierarchy of being, the “good” and “evil” of the lower rungs on the ladder may be (and often ARE) very contrary to the “good” and “evil” of the higher rungs. Let’s take a bad genetic illness like Harlequin Baby Syndrome. From our point of view in the social and particularly mental spheres of being, this seems quite obviously evil. It is hideous and causes great physical and emotional suffering. On the other hand, from the point of view of biology, it’s not bad at all. Genetic variability is what drives the whole process. If we didn’t have a thousand mutations or genetic combinations that resulted in death and pain, we wouldn’t have the one that turned proved to be useful in some particular way. Suffering and death are simply failed experiments that weed out unfit genetic combinations.

The higher levels cannot normally disregard the rules and laws of the lower levels. They simply find ways to work around them or compromise with them to achieve their purposes.

Spiritual Metaphors

Let’s return to the Gnostic metaphor, then. The Gnostics saw the god of creation, the demiurge or “half-maker” as a somewhat ignorant figure, full of arrogance, petty jealousy and capriciousness. From the ideas above, we could say that the demiurge represents the physical/biological systems, as seen from the point of view of the mental/spiritual systems. It’s interesting that as gnosticism developed from its earlier roots, the demiurge was increasingly seen as not just immature and ignorant, but positively EVIL, along with the material world he organized. Orthodox Christianity has been more reluctant to condemn the material world, but still tries to insist that God governs the whole cosmos in accordance with the higher (mental/spiritual) notions of “good”. The idea that “good” changes from one level to the next would probably rub the wrong way and be seen as making morality “situational”.

A Symbolic Example

This idea of good and evil changing from one level to the next has an interesting illustration in world symbology – specifically the symbol of the snake. Ken Wilber points out that serpents can be seen as symbols of good OR evil in many different religions – including Christianity. For example, the serpent represents Satan in the garden on the one hand, but when Moses raises up a serpent on a pole to heal the Israelites, it is taken to be a symbol of Jesus.

In Hindu/Buddhist symbolism, the snake represents Kundalini energy – the basic life/god force of the cosmos, which works it’s way up the energy centers or “chakras” of the human body as it spiritually progresses. It’s starts at the base of the spine, at a center representing the physical systems, and works it’s way up to above the crown of the head, representing the highest spiritual centers. Wilber points out that when the snake symbol is used as representing “evil” it is seen at the lower levels of the body (the typhonic gods, for example, or the goat-god baphomet), and at the higher levels of the body, it represents “good” (Buddah and other deities are seen with cobras shading the crown of their heads). It is not that the physical levels are “bad” – they are only seen as bad when we fixate on or descend to the lower physical/biological or social levels as the expense of the mental/spiritual levels.

More Refinements

The categories I have been using, by the way, need not be divided so broadly. Within each level of being, there may be many sub-levels. For example, there are many types and classifications of social and mental systems. A new and higher social or mental system may find its notions of “good” and “evil” quite different from an earlier one.

Implications

How do we view the problem of evil from this hierarchical perspective? What looks to us humans as “unnecessary suffering” from our perspective is usually the “good” of a lower order interposing itself in our own “good”. Theoretically, of course, it could always be the good of a higher order interposing itself in our own “good”. For example, our programs of selective breeding produce species that, while they serve our purposes nicely – are actually LESS fit for survival. If biology had an independent mind and could speak, it might accuse us of corrupting things. Which brings up another point. A lower level is utterly incapable of reacting according to the “good” of a higher level. If there are levels of being above our own – we might be quite unequipped to understand “good” and “evil” with respect to them – until we reach that level ourselves. In fact, if the system I have mapped out here has any predictive value, it would probably say that at the next level, the “goods” and “evils” of our MENTAL or philosophical/religious systems are quite incidental to a much greater spiritual good. The angels or higher beings may be as unconcerned about the truths of our philosophies and dogmas as we are unconcerned with “corrupting” natural selection by breeding prize milk cows.

If we look at God as being present at every level of this hierarchy, working within it – we are simply faced with the fact that there are different ideals of “good” at different levels of being.

“Evil” is simply the interplay of different levels of “good”.

Jul 262006
 

This post is a general ramble inspired by a comment I read by a Christian in a discussion of Buddhism, to the effect that Buddhism and Christianity had diametrically opposite views on the nature of the Divine Reality behind all existence. Christianity, contended this writer (with support from Exodus) regards the Supreme Reality as Absolute Being, whereas Buddhism regards it as Absolute Non-Being or nothingness.

Candle FlameDescribing the Absolute has always been an almost insurmountable difficulty. Many mystics simply put it down as “ineffable” and leave it at that. Assuming we press on and try to come up with some kind of definite description, here are some of the stages and difficulties we are likely to go through…

Once we move beyond the idea of a bearded Zeus-like figure on a throne, we are likely to come up with some idea of God similar to what St. Anselm provided – “That Being, than whom, no greater can be conceived”. Absolute Being. The Great “I AM”. The Nature of all natures, the Essence of all essences. The problem comes when we try to describe the existence of such a Being. Naturally, we would like to think of absolute being as having some kind of real existence. But what kind?

Typically (in fact universally) things EXIST by having concrete reality at a particular place and during a particular time. They come into existence at a particular place and time, for particular causes. They change, due to particular circumstances, and they finally cease to exist – usually leaving other things behind them. But in the case of God, these things are not true.

God’s existence is not confined to a particular place. If it were, he would not be “That Being, than whom no greater can be conceived”. Why? Because we can conceive of a GREATER being – one who is NOT confined to a particular place. We might try to say that God is in ALL places. But what if the universe is FINITE? Does God cease to exist beyond the boundaries of the cosmos? Before there WERE “places” did God not exist? It seems clear that it is more precise to think of God – NOT as existing “everywhere” – but of not being bound by location at all – of being confined to NO location.

Similarly, God could be said to exist at ALL times – but it would be more effective to say that he is not bound by time at all. He did not begin to exist with the beginning of time, nor will he end with the end of time (assuming there even are beginnings and ends of time). God is confined to NO particular time.

Going further, and by similar lines of thought, we would have to say that God, being the greatest being who can be conceived, is not limited by contingent causes. A bit harder, but of the same line of reasoning – we would have to say that God cannot change. Why? Because change involves giving up one state of being, and acquiring another one. If God is absolute Being, then he cannot give up any “being”, nor is there any additional “being” he can acquire.

At this point, we may begin to notice something. All the things we can say about the “being” of God are basically NEGATIVE. He exists at NO time and NO place. He lacks causes and he demonstrates no change. Describing absolute being ends up sounding very much like describing absolute NON-being. What, in fact, is the difference in the descriptions? Is it in the effects? Is the positive nature of God found in what he causes? But who is to say that absolute non-being cannot be conceived as a profoundly creative concept? Who is to say that the Void doesn’t give birth to all being?

Small wonder, then, that mystics have often described God not only in positive terms, as absolute being, but in negative terms, as absolute nothingness. These only appear contradictory because we are using finite concepts to describe the absolute.

When positive mystics describe God as absolute being, they are simply emphasizing his creative power – the fact that he is the foundation of all reality.

When negative mystics describe God as absolute nothingness, they are simply emphasizing the lack of the FINITE attributes that characterize all being.

Both are describing the same thing.

The highest expression, in my opinion, is to arrive at the point of seeing that God is beyond existence AND non-existence. He is the ineffable source of both sets of dualistic opposites.

Some examples:

Christian:

“Or if I say that “God exists”, this is also not true. He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being. Therefore St. Augustine says: “The finest thing that we can say of God is to be silent concerning him from the wisdom of inner riches.” Be silent therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding.”

– Meister Eckhart

Jewish (Kabbalistic)

“The major problem that Mystics of all eras have come up against in trying to express their transcendental experiences to others is that these experiences lie beyond the bounds of the rational (and even intuitional) mind on which human written and verbal communication is based. Many methods have been tried, including allegory, antinomy, poetry and mundane approximation; but all founder on the fact that transcendental experience cannot be adequately conveyed through sub-transcendental means of communication.” In Kabbalism, this problem occurs especially in discussions of the higher sefirot on the Tree of Life, and becomes insurmountable in discussing that which lies beyond or above the Tree. The manifest Tree expressed through the sefirot in the four worlds is as much as can usefully be conveyed to the human mind through language; and beyond this, beyond Kether of Atziluth, are drawn the Three Veils of Negative Existence: en (Nothing), en sof (Limitless Nothing), and en sof or (Limitless Light). (Atziluth itself, and even Briah, are really beyond human conception, their “structure” being hinted at through the tangible expressions of the sefirot in the lower worlds.)”

– Discussion of the Kabbalah

Islamic:

“Allah is non-being and being, existence and non-existence. He is the relative and the Absolute. All these concepts return to Allah, for there is nothing we can comprehend or write or speak about that is not Allah”

– Abd Al Kader

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