woensdag 17 december 2008

Some silliness

The Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad has a gushing review of Creationist biochemist Duane Gish's book about dinosaurs. Judging from the review, it seems to be standard OEC boilerplate with a dose of cryptozoology (dinosaurs are, apparently, still with us). I should note that the Reformatorisch Dagblad is in general a quality Calvinist newspaper, if you look away from their quirks such as shutting down their website on Sundays.

Some quotes of Gish I just can't leave alone (my translation):

Have you ever seen the tail of a hippo?

This is, of course, of the Behemoth, which is argued to be possibly a brachiosaur. The article has a helpful article about a man (presumably Job?) staring at three brachiosaurs (aren't brachiosaurs supposed to have been semi-aquatic, though?).

The relevant passage from Job (40: 15-19)

Look at the behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.
What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!
His tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.
His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.
He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.

Now, at I understand, the reading of "hippopotamus" is based on the etymology of "Behemoth" which does seem to be a loan from an Egyptian word for hippo. Also, some of the other verses talk about the Behemoth hiding in swamps and under reeds, which fits the hippopotamus as well. But I agree that the 'tail'-part does not suggest a hippopotamus.

Then again, one might remark that cedars, as trees generally do, grow from the ground upward. Not sideways. So I can't see a brachiosaur reflected in the text either.

And look at the surrounding verses. First, we have amazement at the Behemoth's strength in the loins, then at the close-knit sinews of the thighs. 'Thighs' happen to be 'stones' or 'testicles' or 'male organs' in some other translations. The New International Version has a footnote that the 'tail' might be a trunk (supposing the Behemoth is an elephant) but, looking at the verse in context which reads as a praise to the creature's power and virility, my thoughts are drawn to a different organ.

I do not know whether 'tail' was a usual metaphor for that-other-thing in Biblical Hebrew (and can't be bothered to look up right now) but it seems natural enough (see for example German Schwanz which has both meanings).

For the record, I think it is fairly useless to speculate on what creature the Behemoth is supposed to mean. When the Bible talks about Behemoth, or Leviathan, it does not do so in quite the same way as it talks about sheep or camels - we do not find any Biblical figure encountering a herd of Behemoths. Rather, they are very specific monsters in the Biblical narrative as well. And I think that's what they basically are: monsters.

Elsewhere in the article Gish is quoted against the existence of transitional fossils:

None of the animals is on its way to change for 25, 50 or 75 percent; they are all complete 100 percent. Fossils are strong evidence against evolution.

The point of transitional fossils is one I have never understood.

It seems self-evident that if species A is the ancestor of species B (after a number of evolutionary changes) and that species B is an ancestral form of species C, that then species B is a transitional form between A and C, and fossils of it are 'transitional fossils'. Thus Homo Erectus is a transitional form between Homo Habilis and ancestral modern man. Which does in no way have to imply that species B (say Homo Erectus is in any way incomplete. It is only from the perspective of its ancestors and its descendants that it is a transitional fossil. As far as Homo Erectus was concerned, it probably was the pinnacle of creation. And of course Homo Erectus was a full-blown species, interbreeding with its companions, and persisting over a given quantity of time (perhaps some time after its modern descendants entered the scene. Most any creature is a representative of a species.

Likewise, from our contemporary perspective, we might state that Middle English is a transitional form between Old and Modern English, which does not mean Middle English was in any way an 'incomplete language'. Alternatively, if Monk A copies a Bible, makes a few mistakes, and leaves the copy to Monk B who adds some copying mistakes of his own in the copy he, in turn, is making, the intermediary form is a 'transitional form' from a historical perspective. It's still a Bible, too.

What has always remained entirely unclear to me is what, if my reading above is wrong, 'transitional fossils' are supposed to look like? Dinos with feathers? Check. Hairy reptiles? Check. Ape-men? Check. Ah, but all those are species in their own rights! But what else would we expect?

zaterdag 13 december 2008

This ain't the summer of love: Marxism, Christianity and the glorious nature of suffering.

This ain't the garden of Eden
There ain't no angels above
and things ain't like they're supposed to be
and this ain't the summer of love

Blue Öyster Cult

One of my favourite blogs in the Swedish blogosphere is Bloggelito's. This is because the writer is a heretic against what I regard as the "Swedish ideology" - the weird mixture of Social Democracy and moralistic feminism. And on many single political issues, I find myself in wholehearted agreement with him. With regard to worldviews, however, the distance could not be greater: being a libertarian secular humanist, the writer has an understanding of Christianity which makes Christopher Hitchens look like a subtle thinker. One example is Kristendom är fascism ("Christianity is Fascism").

The title is a response to a piece written by a Christian called Självmordshjälp är fascism ("Assisted suicide is Fascism"). I don't want to go into the question itself. I am rather leery of the state either banning or legislating euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Rather, I want to go off on a tangent based on the sneer at the end of the post (my translation):

Christianity is the mother of all fascism, with its insane emphasis on suffering (its symbol is a tortured carpenter on a cross). Whereas euthanasia is at home within the domain of humanism, with its outspoken aim to alleviate suffering..

Yes. YES. Y E S. Exactly. Guilty as charged! (Not about the fascism, mind you. That's nonsense of course. But on the suffering).

Suffering and the celebration of suffering lies at the heart of Christianity. We do indeed worship a tortured and wounded carpenter executed in one of the nastiest ways the local authorities could come up with. And depending on the exact denomination, we also worship a whole regiment of saints who faced down suffering, torture and death with death-defying, insane courage.

Again, there's various kinds of Christians. Some protestant churches are adorned with an empty cross, something I've always been puzzled at. The Roman Catholic and Eastern churches are an entirely different matter, of course. And then there are the Anabaptists, who have a glorious (and I mean precisely: glorious) history of martyrdom stretching into early modern times.

But Christianity, at heart, is about suffering and dying. It is about God, in the person of a carpenter from Galilee, showing us what it means to be human. Which as it happens includes a lot of suffering and dying. There's no way out from that. Christianity provides no spiritual painkillers, no escape from the harsh realities of the world. If you dream of immortality as a ball of pure life-energy circling the planets around Sirius or some such dross, join the New Agers. Christianity is about the suffering and dying. Which is serious business. Sure enough, as a matter of faith and hope, we may believe we will be resurrected before God - but as Christ himself showed, the suffering and dying has to be gone through first.

(The case of the Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems has baffled me since I first read of it. In 1569, Dirk Willems tried to escape the Church authorities across the ice. His pursuer fell through the ice, and apparently without a second thought, Dirk Willems turned around and helped him out. According to some reports, his pursuer was unwilling to arrest him but ordered to do so by the bailiff who stayed safely on the land. Dirk Willems was duly burned as a heretic.

Willems' case baffles me because he does not exemplify what a good man, or a morally upright man, or a "good Christian" should do. Only an utterly insane version of ethics would prescribe Willems' actions. Rather, through his actions, Willems transcended the logic of action and benefit, of practical rationality itself.

Willems' case keeps me awake at night. Because he exemplifies what I must intellectually accept what Christianity is about. At the same time, there's no question I'd have left the guy in the water. I'd probably have never gotten myself in that situation in the first place. It's not so much that I would break under torture, but that the mere suggestion of torture would be quite enough. And give up my friends and loved ones in the process. Because in the end, witnessing or causing the pain of others would be easier to bear than suffering oneself. It's not nice, but there it is.

This causes me to be quite hesitant in my own embrace of Christianity. Because if to be a Christian means to be a "follower of Jesus", I want to read the small print. Others may think of the miracle healings, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables. My thoughts are immediately drawn to nails.)

Back to the point: Christianity is about suffering and dying. It's about learning how to suffer. There's no way around it.

At the basis of Christianity is the understanding that the world is somehow radically not-as-it-should-be. There is a wrongness about things which goes right down to our cells, to the very heart of our being. Things are not as how they are intended to be. We are not as we're supposed to be. For the Christian, living in the world as it is is pretty much like holding a mirror which cries out: "Look at you! How hideous!".

This is of course not unique to Christianity. Marxism has a notion, in estrangement or alienation, which very much mirrors the Christian notion of the Fall.

Secular liberals are a different story. Secular liberals have a notion of wrongness, to be sure, but not radical wrongness. The wrongness of the world, in the mind of the secular liberal, often seems to lie in the rest of the world being reluctant to accept the political and social ideals formulated during the Enlightenment and exemplified in Western Europe and the U.S. But through the gradual approach between nations through free exchange of ideas and material goods, through the gradual emancipation of the autonomous, rational individual in China and Afghanistan as it is in America or Sweden, or, alternatively, encouraging the process along through U.N. sanctions or carpet-bombing, the values of the Enlightenment may yet spread around the world.

The Marxist and the Christian would probably find common ground in rejecting this notion, for not entirely dissimilar reasons.

In any event, there are a few possible responses to the radical wrongness of the world. The first would be to utterly reject and renounce the world, or to regard the world as ephemeral and illusionary, the underlying reality being a much better spiritual and ideal world which we may approach through religious ritual and contemplation. This is pretty much the road that the Gnostics took.

Another alternative would be to accept the world, but reject the self that sees the wrongness of it all. The ultimate ideal would not be an ascension of the self to some kind of better, ideal world, but an elimination of the self. My understanding of Buddhism is very limited, but I believe that there is at least some of this in Buddhism.

For the Christian (or the Marxist) neither alternative are open. We cannot liberate ourselves from this particular universe in favour of a better one. But neither can we eliminate our sense of the wrongness of things. The solution lies in the world-to-come. For the Marxist, this means the end of the alienation between man to man, and between man to nature, through abolishing the economic circumstances (methods of production, etc.) which perpetuate such alienation. For the Christian, the world-to-come is the Kingdom of God as announced and exemplified by Christ, which is at the same time here (in a community of followers of Christ) and not-yet-here - but contains the promise of reconciliation between us and the Creator which we, in our inherent 'wrongness', are estranged from.

At first sight, the Christian notion of Fallenness appears more thoroughgoing, and the notion of the Kingdom more radical. This may be true, but the decisive break in history which the advent of socialism would bring with regards to basically all human history that went before should not be underestimated.

I am reminded here by a quote of Marx presented by the blogger "Lenin" in a discussion following a post on the "New" Atheists. A discussion which demonstrates, in my opinion, why the Marxists are so much more serious and interesting intellectual opponents than secular-humanist atheists such as Dawkins or neocon atheists such as Hitchens or Harris. (No less than both my favourite philosophers - Collingwood and MacIntyre - got a mention). Anyway, the quote:

Atheism, as the denial of this unreality, has no longer any meaning, for atheism is a negation of God, and postulates the existence of man through this negation; but socialism as socialism no longer stands in any need of such a mediation. It proceeds from the theoretically and practically sensuous consciousness of man and of nature as the essence. Socialism is man’s positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the abolition of religion, just as real life is man’s positive reality, no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism.

Briefly, to the Marxist, both religion as well as atheism as a stance occurring in modern society are products of alienation. Religion, the 'heart of a heartless world', will no longer serve a function when that alienation is overcome - but neither will atheism, i.e. the denial of God. Truthfully, I am not sure whether, from my own religious viewpoint, I disagree with this.

In any event, neither Christianity nor Marxism can be easily reconciled with the Enlightenment discourse of inherent rights and disembodied moral principles, as it figures rather prominently in Bloggelito's post.

For the Marxist, the ideology of any given epoch (such as the ideology of secular liberal individualism) is the ideology of the ruling class of that epoch, and serves the interests of that ruling class. The eternal principles of the Enlightenment - such as the universalist notion of human right, of eternally valid moral principles which we have access to through a 'moral instinct', etc., are to a Marxist part of a historically and culturally specific ideology which serves a specific notion of society and a specific class interest. The Catholic (ex-?)Marxist Alasdair MacIntyre, in his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? makes this clear in tracing the development of property as an a priori, untouchable principle in Hume's thought. This does not mean, obviously, that Marxism needs to be implacably hostile to Enlightenment principles. The bourgeoisie was progressive in its time, and the development of a universal notion of human rights at the end of the 19th century was progress. However, the bourgeoisie is not progressive anymore, and it is its 'ruling ideology' which needs to be overcome.

Christianity is, I believe, neutral to the specific ethics and 'rights' accorded to people in a specific society. Because for the Christian, the ultimate end and goal of the human being is Christlikeness, the standard presented to us by God; and the example of Dirk Willems should make pretty clear what this takes. It is obviously impossible to dictate Christlikeness as the prevailing norm in a given society (if you doubt this, consider the example of a perhaps rather less admirable Anabaptist, namely John Bockelson van Leiden). Aside from this, there is a strong disengagement from political power in the New Testament:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours."
Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"

(Luke 4: 5-8).

(I think that, arguably, 'Christendom' as the notion of a Christian polity represents Christianity's own 'fall from grace', regardless of the benefits it may have brought society, or the probable inevitability of the historical process).

So Christianity has been combined with Enlightenment-based notions on morality and rights as happily as it has been with virtue ethics before. An example of the former is the employment of a 'moral instinct', an apprehension of eternal moral principles, in apologetics. Mind you, I believe this may well be wrong; that an underlying notion of ethical traditions which may differ a lot in time and place may be superior, and that the basic Christian notion of Christ-as-human-telos may have validity in a variety of such traditions. There is not one single Christian politics, or one single Christian morality; and the moral-political vision often represented by political Christianity often seems to go back to just the conventional morality of the turn of the 19th century. In other words, the 'Christian right' are just as much children of the Enlightenment as their secular opponents.

In any event, my understanding is that, from a Christian viewpoint, God owes you nothing. He created you in His image, and for every instant of your life, you depend on Him totally. What He has given you He can take away, just like that - and you have no cause to complain (which isn't to say you can't complain - there is a long and honourable Old-Testamentic tradition of complaining to God - just that you don't have any inherent right to). You may have rights granted by the society you live in - but before God, you have none.

And on my understanding of the Gospel, 'alleviating suffering', which Bloggelito regards as a hallmark of humanism, figures rather low in the whole plan. To the contrary, suffering and the endurance and overcoming of suffering and death through suffering and death figure rather prominently in the New Testament and early Christian history (as well as later Christian history if you're an Anabaptist). This puts Christianity at odds with a kind of humanistic utilitarianism which regards the maximum of happiness, or the minimization of suffering, as the moral standard of an action. As indeed it should be. If the purpose of life, for the Christian, is to follow Jesus, and to 'glorify God' through his actions, such utilitarian concerns should fall by the wayside.

These are not very pleasant thoughts. I believe that Christianity can co-exist with a lot of varying political viewpoints. David Heddle is a libertarian; a position that to me seems indeed to naturally flow from some New-Testamentic passages, notably those on the renunciation of political power. Others may be conservatives or socialists. I myself find myself drawn back to the hard left and to a Quixotic radical conservativism at the same time. And as it is, I happen to agree with a lot of the individual standpoints the secular libertarian Bloggelito takes. But from a Christian standpoint, I must put my hopes for the world-to-come in the Kingdom of God, and acknowledge that there will be suffering and death before.

There's the old notion of 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord', in that an honest appraisal of Christ must come down to one of the three. But perhaps a good way to put it is that to understand the New Testament, one must in a way adopt all these viewpoints. Because a lot of it is quite insane, offensive, scandalous to modern-day sensibilities. And it should be. There is nothing particularly comforting about the lines Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:30). And the more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel. What does it mean to be human? The answer is right there, right in front of me. And to be honest, I don't like one bit of it. But I nonetheless think it's true.