Aztec Moral Philosophy

An interesting article on Aztec moral philosophy, which is a virtue ethics different from the Greek tradition.  

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence.

One reason the Aztec's had this difference view is because they viewed life on Earth as "slippery."  Which means that fortune will eventually turn against us, or we will fail.  So instead of exercising great worry over whether or not a virtue person can suffer misfortune or make any mistakes (the way Greek virtue theory has), they simply assumed this and developed a virtue ethics where we must rely upon one another because life is "slippery."

This article left me wanting to know more about this tradition.  I'll likely incorporate something from this in my philosophy classes.


Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel

Jacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient IsraelJacob's Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel by Theodore W. Jennings Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this very well argued book Ted Jennings claims that "same-sex eroticism in Israel is inseparably connected to Israel's Yahwism. It is no extraneous import but something deeply and inextricably embedded in the religion of Israel."

Jennings begins in the obvious place--the sagas of David, Jonathan, and Saul--and from there considers stories of Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, elements of the prophetic tradition (particularly Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and then the stories of Joseph, Moses, and Jacob, before wrapping up with Ruth. In other words, here is a systematic overview of much of the Hebrew scriptures demonstrating the role that same-sex eroticism plays in the development of the biblical tradition. Jennings credits same-sex eroticism as being the key element that moves YHWH from a violent warrior God to a God of steadfast love and compassion. In other words, the key essence of the biblical tradition arises from the experience of homoeroticism.

Along the way, Jennings' interpretation makes sense of a wide range of passages, including some of the strangest in scripture. He makes far more sense of them than other interpretations I've read.

Also along the way, Jennings deals with a longstanding false idea in Western culture that Greece was the culture most accepting of homoeroticism while Israel forbade it. Instead, homoeroticism is key the Israelite religion predating its significant emergence in Greek culture. Plus, it is a homoeroticism based upon the desire of bottom rather than the activity of the top, which is how he characterizes Greek culture.

He shows how the Holiness Code in Leviticus is very late to the tradition and doesn't fit a wide range of stories from the sagas (not just those dealing with homoeroticism). He argues that the Holiness Code is borrowed from Zoroastrianism and should not be understood as reflective of Hebrew culture prior to exile.

This is an excellent book; I highly recommend it.

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Taking a Knee

A recent Christian Century editorial took a good theological perspective on the much discussed issue of NFL players taking a knee.  An excerpt:

one of the most vivid images of players’ humanity comes when they take a knee. During the game, this is one of several ways that players “down” the ball, avoiding being tackled by ending the play. Between plays and on the sidelines, players take a knee for various reasons. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer has traced the phrase back to a college team’s 1960 tribute to a deceased coach. It gained traction in reference to players stopping to rest. Later the posture came to signify solidarity—an expression of prayer or encouragement for the anxious or concern for the injured. In each case, taking a knee highlights the vulnerable humanity football teams are made of.

That’s what makes the NFL player protests against police brutality and racism—begun in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid—so powerful. The sight of black players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem evokes solidarity, empathy, and remembrance of the dead. It’s a posture that represents a player stepping out of his role in the game and embracing his more fundamental identity as a person.


Exit West

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this book during the nights when you can't sleep in Omaha because of the ridiculous noise from fireworks heightened the experience.

But I was not as impressed by this book as it seems most people have been. I found the writing style too spare. The conceit of the doors as a way to comment on the current global migration crisis was intriguing, but Saeed and Nadia's relationship ups and downs did not engage me.

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"Prudent Action"

George Packer's review of Ben Rhodes's memoir of time of his time as a foreign policy advisor to President Obama is a thoughtful discussion of the book and Obama's foreign policy strengths and weaknesses.  Here is the most important paragraph and the main reason to read the essay:

After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.

So, "Don't do stupid shit" may be preferable to the interventions of George W. Bush, but the practical outcomes in this particular case don't recommend that policy either.


Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1)Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not set in a post-apocalyptic future as is so common, but in the midst of social decline and disruption brought on by climate change, growing income inequality, a rise in drug use, violence, and poverty. Reading the book right now was frightening.

Lauren, the hero, grows up in the 2020's in a walled neighborhood of eleven homes in southern California where it rains once every six years. The neighbors must work together to defend their neighborhood, grow their own food, and educate themselves. Some are tempted away when a corporate town opens nearby, promising security but a form of wage slavery associated with Steinbeck novels or the Pullman Strike.

Lauren rejects the religion of her Baptist minister father as a new religion, called Earthseed, is revealed to her. For Earthseed, God is change and change is inevitable. But change can be affected by what one does to prepare for it and respond to it. She is something of a Cassandra in her neighborhood, but becomes a leader of people by the end.

There is a second Earthseed book, which I will soon have to read, as this one left me hanging and wanting more. I'm curious that it has not been made into a Netflix or Hulu series, as it so grippingly fits our cultural moment.

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Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."


Court's Green Light to Discriminate

This article at The Atlantic reveals part of what was wrong with the Court's ruling on the Muslim Ban and how the ruling gives the administration a green light to discriminate.  The author demonstrates how for Justice Roberts the only discrimination that is illegal is when it is explicitly stated, discriminatory effects alone don't count.  By this logic of Roberts's, most of the Jim Crow laws banned by the 1965 Voting Rights Act would be okay.

Also, the strange inconsistency (hypocrisy) of the last month:

1) Vaguely "anti-religious" statements of a minor public official in Colorado mean the baker didn't receive due process and his religious freedom was denied, yet

2) Explicitly Islamophobic statements by the President are not relevant, so no one's religious freedom was discriminated against.


Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the rave reviews and awards, I expected to relish this novel and simply did not. The book exhibits great craftsmanship and ingenuity in how it is written, but the story itself did not capture me, even repulsed me at times. One thing that repulsed me was its mythology of afterlife which bears no resemblance to anything in Christian thought. Maybe that was on purpose, but it seemed to me that a rich meditation on death and loss (if that was the actual goal) would have made more sense within some more recognizably conventional understanding.

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People of the Word

People of the Word

2 Chronicles 34:15

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 June 2018

 

    

    A few years ago a Bible was rediscovered here in America. As the collection of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was being formed, the curators were contacted by a white family in Virginia who said they had the Bible of Nat Turner and would the museum like it.

    Nat Turner was the rare enslaved person who could read, and he read the Bible, which turned him into a prophetic preacher. Fired by his dreams of freedom, he led a revolt of enslaved persons in 1831 that was violently suppressed but deeply rattled the slaveholding states of the nation.

Turner had been carrying the Bible when captured. It then was on display in the Southampton county courthouse until 1912 when it was given to the Person family, descendants of some of the slave holders killed in Turner's rebellion. A century later the family realized the Bible belonged to the nation and in the new museum of African-American history.

It is now a centerpiece of the exhibit.

 

Last year when I was in Washington, I was unable to get into the new museum—it is that popular—but during a winter snow storm Fred Nielsen and Sue Epperson were able to. I asked Fred this week for his thoughts on seeing Nat Turner's Bible.

 

The museum is filled with exhibits that conjure deep feeling -- of thoughtfulness, sorrow, anger. Nat Turner's Bible stands out because of its particularity, its influence, and its size.

 

Fred points out that it is quite small. Roughly 5 inches by 3 and half by 1 and a half.

    Fred came upon the Bible shortly after the exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and the tension between his owning slaves and his views on human freedom. Fred wrote of the experience:

 

Turner's Bible is close by, a rebuke to anyone who thinks the Founders bequeathed full freedom to their descendants. When I came upon it, though, it was almost disappointing at first. Everything about the Jefferson exhibit was big and shiny and new. Now, here was an old book, badly worn, a Bible smaller than expected, smaller certainly than its place in American history would seem to warrant. And yet. There's a power in it, a surprising power given how small it is. Or maybe its smallness is part of its power. Mangers aren't big, either. I stood there a while, walked on, and then walked back, drawn by this small battered volume. This wasn't a safe Bible, one that had been stored in a hotel room drawer, or placed on a lectern in a church sanctuary or on a bedside table. This book of the ages, containing old words of freedom, had been a direct inspiration to the man who owned it. It's all of him that remains. I was in a museum, but this was a book that radiated life.

 

And then you remember what happened to the man who owned it, and you cry again.

 

 

    In today's scripture lesson we have a story of a rediscovered Bible and the transformation it brings about. Let's look at this story in three parts. First a little background, then let's examine some of the details in the story, before we raise some critical questions. After we've examined the story, then we'll think about what we might learn from it.

    First, the background.

    Last week I preached from the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century Before the Common Era as the nation was besieged by the empire of Assyria. Not long after Hosea's time, the nation of Israel was defeated.

    That left the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah too was attacked by Assyria. According to Bible scholar David Carr, "The Judeans lost approximately 70 percent of their population and 85 percent of their towns and villages." I don't think we can even begin to imagine that kind of loss and destruction.

    Yet, the nation of Judah survived. The Assyrians devastated the nation, but did not capture the capital of Jerusalem. The Bible gives us four different accounts of that siege and how it failed. Clearly the people were determined to understand this significant historical event. The Biblical understanding of the episode came to be that God had rescued the people because of their faithfulness to God's covenant and because they were governed by Hezekiah, descendant of David. It was during this time that the nation began to develop an understanding of God's covenant with the house of David and the idea that a descendant of David would forever reign upon the throne.

    History is, of course, probably more complicated than this. The Assyrians kept good records and according to their chronicles the siege of Jerusalem ended when King Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute and swore allegiance to them. And every year after the kings of Judah had to reaffirm their loyalty to the invading power and pay the heavy tribute.

    In the time between the surprising survival of Jerusalem and Josiah, the nation was under the boot of Assyria. The children of the elite would be taken away from home and educated in Assyrian schools and returned to Judah having lost their native culture, all in an attempt to assimilate and destroy the Judean people.

    And Judah was governed by kings that the Biblical chroniclers judged as unfaithful to God and God's covenant.

    And so we come to the time of Josiah. Suddenly, as he came of age, Josiah benefited from a great change in the world situation—Assyria's power was waning. Egypt had overthrown the Assyrian overlords and was leading a coalition of nations pushing back the Assyrian powers. Also Babylon was on the rise in the east, challenging Assyrian hegemony. So, Josiah benefited from the opportunity to spread his wings, throw off Assyrian domination, and reaffirm the culture of the Judean people.

    This story of the discovery of the Book of the Law, presumably Deuteronomy, is a great story. One of those I learned in Sunday school as a child. Josiah has entered into a renovation of the temple. The workers find a book that had been hidden during the years of foreign occupation and wicked kings.

When they need to understand the book, they go ask for a prophet to interpret it for them. Interestingly, this is the first biblical commentator in our tradition, and it is a woman, the prophet Huldah. Of course, as a Southern Baptist kid, we didn't learn that part in Sunday school. I only learned that in college. The very first interpreter of the biblical tradition was a woman, which should have easily settled all those debates about the role of women. Also interesting to note, some of the famous guy prophets, like Isaiah, were alive at this time, but they don't get called upon to interpret the book.

When the book was read, the people were shocked to realize that they had broken the covenant and therefore would be judged by God. They were frightened that what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel would happen to them, so immediately Josiah engaged in nationwide reform of religious practices. The people returned to faithfulness to the law of God.

This is a great story.

 

Of course, it's probably more complicated than this. Modern scholars wonder how much of the Book of Deuteronomy was discovered at this time and how much of it was simply written at this time, as the book bears the cultural markers of the eighth century.

Scholars wonder how authentic this story is or whether it is mostly royal propaganda to get the people to go along with Josiah's policies.

For Josiah's reforms were not innocuous. The Bible presents them as ending polytheism and reinstituting a clear monotheism. But it seems that some of what Josiah was doing was centralizing worship at the royal-controlled temple in Jerusalem, ending ancient practices. The Judeans had long worshipped at local shrines and altars. Some of these were devoted to gods and goddesses other than Yahweh, but some of them were shrines to Yahweh.

Imagine if the President suddenly closed down all worship sites except the National Cathedral in Washington and commanded that all of our religious rituals should occur only in that one place, and with a tax of course. This is similar to what Josiah was doing, and this centralization of worship under state control is among the reasons that Jesus spoke out so strongly against the Temple.

 

The Jewish historian Simon Schama writes, "The Josiah story is a fable of recovered innocence." In his two volume The Story of the Jews, he gives this story a prominent place for it did succeed in shaping the identity of the Jewish people, who became a people of words, a people of the book. And this identity shaped around words and stories is one reason that Jews have survived through human history. So, over the very long term, Josiah's reform and storytelling worked to give shape to the identity of the people and give them resilience through trauma.

Theologian Shelly Rambo writes,

 

Modern studies of trauma speak to the impact of violence on each of us—interpersonally and collectively—and challenge assumptions of linear time, progress, and interpreting events in isolation. Trauma teaches us that we live precariously in the world. It tells us that the effects of violence and violent histories live on in ways that deeply inform the present and blur the lines we have neatly delineated as past, present, and future. Trauma tells us that our bodies hold pain and that it will take a multisensory intervention to release these body memories. Events that we thought were "over-and-done" live on within us, long after a traumatic event.

 

    One of the tools that helps build resilience is storytelling. The imagination of a traumatized person often gets trapped in a playback loop, reliving the moment of violence and trouble. Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, writes that recovery and healing can occur through storytelling and witness. There are three basic steps.

 

First, the person or persons who have experienced trauma need to be able to tell their story. . . . Second, there needs to be someone to witness this testimony, a third-party presence that not only creates the safe space for speaking but also receives the words when they finally are spoken. . . . Third, the testifier and the witness must begin the process of telling a new, different story together: we must begin to pave a new road through the brain.

 

Jones believes that church people are particularly skilled at this, as we have already been trained to be those who testify, those who witness, and those who "reimage the future by telling yet again the story of our faith."

    We are, of course, a people of the book. A people shaped by words and stories.

 

    In a Smithsonian magazine article by Victoria Dawson about Nat Turner's Bible, I read the reflections of museum curator Rex Ellis.

 

How . . . did [Nat] Turner come to imagine—to believe in—something more than the confines of his particular time, place and lot in life? "When you are taught every day of your life, every hour of work that you produce, that you are there to service someone else, when every day you are controlled by the whims of someone else, and you are instructed to do exactly what you are told to do, and you do not have a great deal of individual expression—how do you break out of that?" Ellis asks.

 

But, atypically for an enslaved person, Turner knew how to read and write, and in the Bible he found an alternative: a suggestion that where he had begun was not where he needed to end. "That Bible didn't represent normality; it represented possibility," Ellis says. "I think the reason Turner carried it around with him, the reason it was dog-eared and careworn, is that it provided him with inspiration, with the possibility of something else for himself and for those around him."

 

    Fred Nielsen had a similar reaction seeing the Bible in the museum. Fred wrote, "Turner's Bible shook the nation. Words matter. Those words mattered. They meant freedom to Turner, and for them he was willing to risk all."


The Nature of Doctrine

The Nature of DoctrineThe Nature of Doctrine by George A. Lindbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of those classics I finally read. And one that was part of the milieu of other theologians who have deeply influenced my own thinking.

For Lindbeck, learning a religion is like learning a language, a skill that you develop. Take this sentence for instance, "In short, intelligibility comes from skill, not theory, and credibility comes from good performance, not adherence to independently formulated criteria."

I long ago adopted this basic framework--skill and communal practices and not propositional belief. And the non-foundationalist epistemology.

I'm glad there are people who think so deeply as this and develop the basic theory that undergirds what I do.

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On Sessions & Scripture

In my reading this week, I came across this discussion of the truth of religious statements in George Lindbeck's classic The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age.  Reading it made me think of the recent debate around Jeff Sessions's misuse of scripture and why we can call it a misuse.

Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting.  They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will.  The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance).  When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.