Monday, October 3, 2011


Recently I read Plato's Euthyphro.  It was really interesting as it involved a discussion of piety from a "pagan" perspective.  Plato and Socrates had a rather different view of the gods than most of their contemporaries, and it shows in this dialogue, as well as in others such as the Republic.  His main complaint tends to be that the gods as represented in Homer and other popular works seem too human, and too petty, to be an accurate portrayal of those who are in charge of the world.  They never seem to agree on anything, they fight all the time, and the heavens tend to play out like a big soap opera between very powerful individuals.

This view of the gods provides the fodder for Socrates in his sparring match with Euthyphro, and from this dialogue we end up getting one of the most enduring questions in the philosophy of religion... usually called the Euthyphro dilemma.  There are many interesting aspects of this dialogue alongside that dilemma, however, and I want to dwell on some of them because this really is a very cool piece of literature.

In talking about piety, Socrates and Euthyphro cover a lot of ground on the nature of gods, and our relationship to them.  Many of those things continued to be questions, even into the age of monotheism.  The main question that the characters are trying to answer here is "What is Piety?"  We will keep coming back to this, because this question allows Plato to tease out a lot of the stranger implications of the popular view of the gods, and in looking at it, we can ask some similar questions about our view of God today.

One of the things they talk about relates to what we can give to the gods.

After Euthyphro describes piety as a kind of business between the gods and men, with gods bestowing good fortune and men giving sacrifices and other pious acts.  Socrates presses the issue, asking if the gods need anything that men can provide them.  It is admitted that they do not, where-by it is remarked that men certainly get the better end of that deal!

This is an issue that underlies many questions about our relationship with the god(s) even today.  Most religions hold god or gods to be perfect, lacking in nothing.  Yet they also maintain that certain acts (piety) somehow enhance the God(s) or please them.  These 2 ideas have a tension between them, usually resolved by saying something like "God doesn't gain anything by our worship, but he likes it anyways."

A similar problem comes up when we think about prayer.  If God is unchanging and knows everything, including our thoughts, what can petitionary prayer do for us?  God already knows what we are going to say, and he knows how he is going to answer it.  Our petitionary prayers should be totally irrelevant to the equation, yet petitionary prayer is an integral part of almost every religion.  It must serve some other purpose, but what could that be?  This particular issue wasn't  really as big of a problem for the Greeks, because the gods were capricious, and changed their minds often.  Plato felt that wasn't a properly respectful view of the Gods, as it led to believing some very odd things.

One thing, and we are leading towards the heart of the matter now, is that this capriciousness made piety so hard to pin down.  If it involves being pleasing to the gods, which ones are you to please?  They all have different opinions on what they want you to do for them.  In this light, an act can be both pious and impious, depending on which god is watching.  This won't do at all.  In trying to nail down piety, it keeps slipping away.  How are we to please the gods if we don't know what they want from us?

Socrates and Euthyphro want to move forward, so they decide to just look at the areas where all Gods agree, that way the previous problem seems to go away.  Unfortunately, they are faced with an even bigger problem, and this is the dilemma I alluded to earlier.

For the sake of continuing the conversation, they agree that piety is doing the things that please all the gods.  Here they run into some trouble.  Pious acts have to please the gods for some reason.  So the fact that the act is pleasing to the gods can't in and of itself be what makes the act pious.  It runs things right into a chicken and egg sort of problem.  Is an act pious because it pleases the gods, or does it please the gods because it is pious? If an act is pious because it is pleasing to the gods, it's just talking in circles.  It's pleasing because they're pleased by it!  Unfortunately, we can't derive the cause out of the effect like that, so we have to look for some different reason that the gods are pleased by pious acts.

Plato felt that abstract concepts had existence in and of themselves (he called them the "forms").  Ths is a huge part of his philosophy, and too complicated to cover in this one blog post.  Needless to say, it was in the forms that he found the answer to the dilemma.  An act was pious because of its intrinsic value that the gods recognized, not just because it was recognized by the gods as pious.  Euthyphro's problem was simply that he couldn't give a good definition of piety, so he had to rely on the god pleasing aspect of the act instead of seeking out the source of its value.  The dilemma is solved, though we never do get to the heart of what piety is by the end of the dialogue.  Euthyphro runs off so he won't have to answer any more questions.

Once the montheistic viewpoint comes in, this dilemma takes on new significance in a slightly different form.  It involves the basis of morality,as it pertains to God.  The reworded dilemma is as follows:  Is something considered good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is good?  This shows up because God, in most traditional monotheistic religions, is said to be all powerful, the creator of everything, and omnibenevolent (perfectly "good").  Whichever option you choose seems to put one or more of those attributes into question.

If you say that God wills something because it is good, this is somewhat problematic.  It seems like it puts a limit of God's freedom, in that he is limited in what morally significant acts he can perform by some external standard of good.  God cannot perform an immoral act, because he is all good.  But then he is constrained to act a certain way in any given situation, and cannot choose between all the options available to him.

In this scenario, God is also no longer the creator of everything.  It is clear that if God calls something good based on an objective standard of goodness, he did not create that standard.  There is something else that exists eternally and necessarily alongside God.

Thirdly, it limits his omnipotence.  By being something that is true and completely outside of God, it creates a whole set of actions that God is unable to accomplish.  If God wants to make something morally obligatory (good) for us, and that something is objectively bad, God cannot change that.  He is powerless to alter what is good, if there is an independent standard of goodness, as this path suggests.

For many theists, it also creates a difficulty in that morality isn't dependent on God to be binding.  This undercuts the "Moral Argument for God".  This is the argument of the form "Without God there can be no moral standards.  There are moral standards.  Therefore, God exists."  Personally, I find this argument to be problematic for a number of reasons.  With this horn of the dilemma, however, the argument can't even be made at all, for it asserts that the first premise is false.

Now, to avoid all this, let us suppose that something is good on the basis that God calls it good.  We run into some big problems here as well.  Firstly, it means that morality is completely arbitrary.  If God's will is the ultimate source of morality, there isn't any further reason that something is defined as moral.  We tend to view God as inherently reasonable, and this viewpoint says that in this instance, he is simply acting on a whim, for as soon as we say he has reasons for declaring something moral, it is those reasons that ground morality, and not God's will.

This leads to a rather unfortunate conclusion.  God's "omnibenevolence" thus becomes a tautology, vacuous of meaning.  "God is good" reduces to "God decides what good means" and we can gain no comfort from the omnibenevolence of God.  No matter what God does, he can't be considered "bad" under these circumstances.

The practical implications of this are troubling, and unfortunately carried out far too regularly.  If God's will is the sole determination of what is good, as this path suggests, then anything is allowable in the name of following God.  The murder of abortion doctors, suicide bombings, and the genocide of the Canaanites have all been justified by an appeal to the will of God.  The only thing you have to be sure of is that you are doing it for the "right" God, and then it becomes acceptable to do what would otherwise be deplorable.

There is also a logical issue with this path.  It rests in the fact that God's will can determine how we should act only if it is morally obligatory to follow God's will.  This obligation can't be based in God's command, because if it is, then we are going in a circle.  To put it explicitly, "We have to do what God tells us to because God tells us to!"  God's authority has to be based in something other than itself in order to be universally morally binding.

There have been quite a few responses to the dilemma, but I think it is still one of the toughest questions in the philosophy of religion.  Theologians can be found who support one or the other of the two options, and others try to determine a way to avoid it completely.  I think it's pretty cool to see how something written 2400 years ago can still be surprisingly relevant today.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A weekend out

I had a 4 day weekend for the 4th, and it was really exactly what I needed.I spent a lot of time outside, and had a lot of fun.  2 things in particular were very nourishing, and made me really think about how I want to be spending more of my time.  A lot more happened over the weekend, but not for this post.

On Sunday we went hiking on the independence trail as a family.  It was the first time Gabe was able to go hiking without a stroller or something to bring him in.  After a morning of trying to get things organized, we made it to the trail around noon.  Gabe was excited, and I was really happy to be out.  Doing outdoors stuff with my kids has been a dream for me for a long time, and we are just coming into the time of life when we can really start doing that.  Gabe is old enough to listen to us, and to have enough independence we don't have to be holding his hand all the time.  Forrest is still young enough that he could sleep the entire time and we didn't have to worry about him.

Like most kids I suspect, he really likes being outside.  He never complained about the heat, and was interested in everything that was going on.  He sat at the overlook for 10 minutes, just looking out at the river in the distance, and telling us about what he was seeing. 

I was overjoyed to see him doing what he wanted to do, and being empowered to check stuff out that I would have thought he would have been nervous about.  He didn't even mind the bugs around, which was a huge step for him.  

When we got to the creek we were heading to, he took off his shoes and went right in.  There were other kids there to talk to, and they became fast friends.  To see him being a kid and having fun was super refreshing. 

I spend a lot of time at work, and so most of the time I spend with Gabe is putting him into bed and reading to him.  This was really a breath of fresh air.  He ended up walking to whole way without any complaining or melting down.  It was just awesome.  We are going to try to make a family hike a weekly occurrance, it is good for everybody, and gets us back in the habit of being outdoors.

Then Tuesday I took the day off to go rafting with friends.  It reminded me that I should really go rafting more often.  We had a great time.  The creek we ran (Pauley Creek in Downieville) was running at a good level, which usually happens in May and not July.  The rapids were super fun and low-stress, and the canyon is awesome.  We ran a bunch of waterfalls, including a 25 footer at the end of the run.  I ended up dropping off dead sideways, but it turned out okay.  The run ends right in downtown Downieville, and was a great trip.  Mellow, with good friends, just an encouraging day overall.  I surely want to go on more trips like this, we talked about some more adventures for later this summer.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Descartes Demon, The Problem of Induction, and the Death of Certainty

Well, after a whole bunch of biblical studies posts, I figure it's time to get back to some philosophy, keep it interesting around here.  In many ways, the history of modern philosophy can be looked at as an attempt to ground reality in some sort of certainty.  The big names in philosophy, like Descarte, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, etc. were trying to build a system from the ground up, so that we can be sure of everything we know.  Once we get the foundation, they reason, we can start securing to that foundation, and in that way build up a massive tower of knowledge from a few simple premises.  It was a noble goal, and it is very interesting to chart the path of this quest, and to see the shambles it is in today.

Descarte has been called the father of modern philosophy, because he did something very interesting when he started his quest into philosophy.  What if I was just put into this world knowing nothing, and I had to figure out what is real going solely by my reasoning powers?  If I strip away every belief it is possible to doubt, what will I be left with?  These are the questions he set out to investigate.  They name this type of skepticism "Cartesian Doubt" because of this contribution he made.

It was from this doubt that he comes up with probably the most well known philosophical statement of all time.  Descarte realized that there was one thing he couldn't doubt, even if he assumed all his senses were unreliable.  From the cold dark depths of utter scepticism, a small voice rings forth.  "I think, therefore I am!"  What he saw was that to deny his own existence was to believe a contradiction, because without existing he couldn't perform the act of denying.  He had it!  This was the capstone upon which he could build his system.  The goal to derive all knowledge from a set of a-priori truths we can know intuitively is known in philisophical circles as "rationalism".

There was a slight hitch though.  Even acknowledging his own existence, he had to admit it was possible that everything else he believed was a lie.  It was totally possible that there was an evil demon, incredibly powerful, who was manipulating Descarte to believe in the existence of other people, a physical world, etc.  There is another version of the argument called the "brain in a vat" argument.  Descarte believed he could get around the implications of this argument by his peculiar versions of the causal and ontological argument, then saying that a good God wouldn't deceive us in such a fashion.  In that way he was able to reclaim most "common sense" knowledge and ground his philosophy in certainty.

It wasn't too long before people began to realize that Descarte's foundation had some cracks in it.  He hadn't eradicated skepticism, and a new group of philosophers were soon to come along and undermine much of the ground he had gained.  George Berkely argued quite convincingly against the existence of a physical world (check out "Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous" and think about how you would engage in the conversations).  David Hume came along after that and took the wind completely out of the rationalist sails.

Hume is an awesome writer, and his ideas are clear and devastating to the search for a solid foundation for philosophy.  Many of the best arguments for skepticism can be traced back to him as the first to really eloquently lay them out.  For instance, it was he who introduced the "is - ought" gap in ethics, as well as an argument against the miraculous that is still talked about today, though in slightly modified form.  I want to talk about another one of his contributions that hit me like a brick when I first grasped the sense of his argument.  It's known as the problem of induction, and I won't be able to do it justice, but I shall try.

Hume was an empiricist, which meant that he believed all truth was gained through experience, and that we can't know anything a-priori.  One might say that empiricism developed as a reaction to the rationalism espoused by Descarte, as well as by the philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz.  Now-a-days, there aren't many pure empiricists left, however it has left an indelible impression in the fields of philosophy in general, and has been helpful in developing modern science.  This empiricism created a problem for him when he looked at the relationship between cause and effect. 

He asked himself how we can know that the future is going to be like the past.  He wanted to find the connection that exists between the cause and the effect in an event.  These two questions are intricately related, as once we find that "necessary connection" we can be assured that things will continue as they are right now, for like effects will follow from like causes.  When he looked into this area, he found something disturbing.  He uses the example of a pool ball.  If we were dropped to the earth with all our faculties, but no knowledge, and saw one pool ball rolling towards another, we would have no way of knowing what would happen when the two hit.  Would they stick together?  Would the one pass through the other?  Would they explode?  Any of these are possible until the 2 balls strike, and we see the change in momentum from one to the other.

Furthermore, there is no way to determine the effect simply from the cause.  Examine a pool ball all you want, it will tell you nothing about what happens in a collision without actually watching it collide.  This goes for all of our "inductive" reasoning.  You can't be able to derive what something will do in the future without observing what it has done in the past and then making a prediction.  There is no logically necessary connection between the two.  The more we see an effect issue from a similar cause, the more sure we are that the one is causing the other.

The problem here that Hume points out is that all our causal reasoning is formed completely in our mind.    The events are all the same.  There is nothing different happening when the ball hits the first time than when it hits the 100th time.  The only difference is in how we perceive the event.  You learn in critical thinking class that correlation doesn't imply causation (<---hint: click this one) but it turns out that causation is simply the assumption we make on the basis of correlation.  It gets worse though.  The arguments that are used to try to solve the problem typically just argue in a circle.

It goes something like this:  We know the future will be like the past because past futures have been like past pasts.  Do you see the trick there?  The argument is that things will continue to operate as they always have because they always have operated that way.  It really isn't an answer at all.  It's the same thing with arguing that probability theory solves the issue.  That goes like this:  Though there is no logical connection between cause and effect, we can add up the times that these 2 events happen together and approach a nearly probabilistic certainty that it will happen in the future the same way.  This is subject to the same criticism as before though.  The probability calculation is only valid if the future operates the same as the past, and we have no way of knowing that will be the case.

There is a way out of the problem posed by Hume, but it involves the death of that quest for certainty that had so characterized the modern philosophers.  We can admit that there is no way of knowing that things will always continue on as they have, but keep living as though they will.  The scientific method operates on the assumption of the uniformity of nature.  It has been incredibly useful, but it is simply an assumption.  I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to believe, and will continue to believe it.  It is simply one of those things we believe that we can't really have any proof for.

P.S.  I put belief in the uniformity of nature in the same category as belief in free will and the material world.  Arguments can cause us to doubt them, but they are a "basic" belief that we can't consistently live doubting.  G.E. Moore argued that we have more reason to doubt the academic skeptical arguments than we do to doubt that the world is pretty much how it seems.  For further reading, I would really recommend either Hume's Treatise of Human Nature Vol. 1, or his "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding."  They are both really good works, and free on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams Movie Review

Over the weekend we went to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the Magic Theatre.  It was in 2-D so I can't comment on the 3-D aspects of the movie, but from what I have heard the 3-D is well done, and adds a good deal to the images presented.

The movie is a documentary, directed by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Cave in France.  It is the location of the worlds oldest cave paintings, between 30,000 and 40,000 years old.  The cave was sealed up by a landslide about 20,000 years ago, and only discovered in 1994.  There are a ton of paintings in it, and they are remarkably well preserved.  Very few people are allowed in the cave, and typically for limited times for research purposes.  The movie has a lot of footage from inside the cave, and interviews with various people associated with the paintings.  First I will talk about the movie itself, and then afterwards about the subject matter of the film.

The movie was beautiful.  The images it captures, both inside the cave and in the surrounding areas, are breathtaking.  They used a variety of techniques to get some very cool shots, and the entire time I was mesmerized.  I thought the score was great, and overall it was one of the most artfully done documentaries I have seen.  The interviews were informative, and it covered a lot of different aspects of the discovery, from the science side of things as well as the historical and archaeological side.  I learned much I didn't know about prehistoric people and the beasts they lived with.

The movie was an experience that washed over you.  It wasn't meant to be merely educational or entertaining.  Much of it simply displayed art from the cave, or the natural formations in the cave, to music with some minimal narration.  I liked how it was put together, as most of the time the videography spoke for itself.  I definitely feel like if I had watched it at home it would have lost some of the grandeur it had on the big screen.  It is a very visual movie, and so I think part of what made it so good was having a medium that allowed us to really be surrounded by the movie.  It isn't one to watch whilst distracted.

The post script was very odd.  I tried to give Herzog the benefit of the doubt, but for me at least it was a bit jarring, and took me out of the mindset he had been generating for the rest of the movie.

Now to the content.

The whole movie left me dumbfounded, with so much to think about, I have spent the last few days processing it.  The thing that Herzog didn't call too much attention to in narration is just how amazing the artwork is on the walls.  The paintings are beautiful, with an incredible sense of proportion and personality.  There are tons of images, and they are all really cool.  I think you can tell from the styles that there were many different artists that worked in the cave, and the carbon dating shows the drawings were made over the course of about 5000 years.  They said that Neandrathal man was around when these paintings were made, as well as the early humans that made the art.  The Neandrathals didn't have the culture that early man had though, as far as we can tell from archaeology.  From that time period they have found cave art, sculpture, and musical instruments, which is just amazing to me.

The times involved were such that much of the formations inside the cave were created after the art in it was.  The time between us and the people who did the drawings is almost unimaginable to me.  6 times the distance between us and ancient egypt (roughly).  It's incredible to me that almost as soon as mankind emerged on the scene, art was being created.  It speaks deeply to who we are as a species.  As one of the interviewers in the movie said, we are not so much "homo sapiens" man who knows, as we are "homo spiritualis", spiritual man.  Innate within us is the ability to create, and to transcend the simple gratification of our basic needs.  It is a part of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Redaction Criticism

As I mentioned, I have been getting way more into academic studies of the New Testament, and it's actually a lot of fun, as well as being educational.  I feel like I am beginning to re-cultivate a lot of the areas in my brain that had gone to seed for a while, which is always a good thing.  I want to talk about some of the things I am learning as I go, just to cement them into my head and maybe help some others learn along the way as well.  I can't go through everything I am learning because that would be too much writing, but I want to start with redaction criticism because it is something that is pretty cool, and easy to see when you start looking for the opportunities.

In this post, I will be operating under the assumptions that there is a literary dependency between the "synoptic gospels" and further that Mark was written first, with both Matthew and Luke using it as a source.  This is known as "Markan Priority".  I won't be defending those assumptions, simply using them.  Also, I will be using the traditional names of the Gospel writers, though they were originally anonymous, because saying "the gospel attributed to Mark by later tradition" gets old pretty fast, and so know that's what I mean when I  just say "Mark".

Secondly, this will be extremely useful for looking at the example that I am going to use to illustrate my point (the NIV is a little clearer though).  Scroll down a bit for the english versions, and look at the key at the top to figure out the color scheme.  That site is useful for any look at the Synoptic problem, I would recommend it.

Redaction Criticism is a way of building on the findings of the Synoptic problem in order to discover more about the goals of the people who wrote the gospels.  Specifically, it looks at what the gospel writers have changed from their source materials, and then tries to find out if there is any sort of reasons the author makes the changes he does.  When you look at parallel passages from the gospels, you can see that there are similarities and differences.  Redaction criticism tries to answer why the differences are there.

All of the gospel writers have certain themes that they want to bring out in their accounts of the life of Jesus.  A cursory reading of Matthew will show that he has a huge interest in tying Jesus' mission to fulfilling old testament scriptures, portraying Jesus as something of a second Moses.  Looking at John we can see his strong desire to show that Jesus is equivalent with YHWH and how he structures his writings to demonstrate that.  Mark has been described as a "passion narrative with an extended beginning" and we can see when we read it his goal to show that Jesus' crucifixion is an integral part of the plan all along.

Sometimes all these things can be seen more clearly if we look at how an author is using his sources, to see if there are things he wants to bring out more clearly, or things he wants to leave out because they don't portray what he wants to portray.  I was going over this because of a conversation with somebody who mentioned James as a sceptic in the bible that later believes in Jesus, based on the fact that he is seen in Mark doubting Jesus, then is later a major church leader.

A major theme in the book of Mark is that Jesus is misunderstood by those that are closest to him.  Constantly his disciples are missing the point of what he is saying, and seem clueless to what his actual mission is.  As the reader we are priviledged to know what is happening, and we can see how clueless everybody else is.  A great example of this is when Jesus family comes to get him, in chapter three (20-21, 31-35 is what we are looking at).  His own family comes to get him because they think he is out of his mind.  Jesus uses this incident to show those around him what it means to be part of the family of the kingdom (what we would later call the "christian family").  At this point you should probably follow the link at the top and read the actual texts in all 3 gospels.

In the context of Mark, the section on his family's unbelief are key for the overall structure of the gospel.  This passage, however, is one that is taken over by both Matthew and Luke (triple tradition), and it is interesting to see what they do to it in their versions (again, I am assuming that Mark was written first, and the other evangelists had access to it).  I am not making any judgements on the historicity of the passages, simply looking at what the text says, and what the literary reasons for the differences might be.

You will notice if you followed the link that neither Matthew or Luke have included the bit about his family thinking he is out of his mind.  It is skipped over while the rest of the section is very similar.  I find this to be quite interesting.  Why would that particular verse be skipped in this passage?  What is it about his family not believing in his mission that would cause the other evangelists to omit that bit of information?  Without reading the Markan account, could you infer the reason that Jesus' family was there in Matthew and Luke?

I think that the reason for this omission has to do with another part of the Jesus story, this one that is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  I am referring, of course, to the Virgin birth.  Because Mark's gospel begins with Jesus as an adult, we have no way of knowing whether he knew of the interesting circumstances of Jesus' birth and chose not to mention them, or if he hadn't heard that story.  Matthew and Luke relate the same basic facts about Jesus' birth, but with little overlap as far as the specifics are concerned.  Both of them relate the story in such a way as there is no question as to whether or not it is a very miraculous occasion. 

I think the fact that the birth narratives play such a major role in their gospels give Matthew and Luke a strong incentive to leave out any mention of his family (his MOTHER no less) thinking he is out of his mind.  They both go through great pains to show how Jesus' mission and calling were set since before he was born.  Luke in particular shows Mary's joy in the specialness of her son, "treasuring all these things in her heart".  How would it look if she then, shortly after he began to fulfill his calling, came to get him because she thought he had gone crazy?  That section just doesn't fit in with the narrative that Luke is constructing.  Same thing goes for Matthew.  He shows clearly how Jesus' birth and childhood fulfilled a bunch of OT prophecies, in a way that it isn't possible without miraculous intervention.  In both of these cases, it wouldn't make sense to have the kind of doubt from his family that we see in the Markan account.

I think those are some specific reasons to leave out that verse, but there are some more general reasons as well.  They have to do with the overall portrait that the Gospels are trying to paint.  I have given some suggestions to this effect above, but I feel it's much more enriching to actually try to discover such things for yourself, so I will offer no more conjectures.  Read through the Gospels, trying not to let them influence each other, and look for what makes each of them unique.  Take a section found in 2 or more of them and compare them.  The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are a great starting point, just don't skip the genealogies.

Look at the Gospels not in terms of the history they contain, but in terms of literary works, written to convey a message by authors who were artistic in their presentation of their material.  It can make for a very different experience, and you may learn a lot from the experience.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Colonization and its effect on indigenous population in "Misty Island Rescue"

As a dad, I tend to watch a few movies that I wouldn't normally be interested in.  With Gabe they tend to center around a certain blue train more often than not.  His favorite as of late has been "Misty Island Rescue" and so I have gotten to know the plot of that one pretty well, and I have noticed some interesting things about the underlying themes.  I want to do a few posts on the various themes I see in Thomas, there's a lot there to look at, and I have watched it quite a bit.

The general plot (SPOILERS!) is that Thomas ends up lost on "Misty Island" off the coast of Sodor.  He finds some strange engines there (the "Logging Locos"), who run on oil, not diesel or steam, and who spend their days playing on the tracks and logging, for no particular reason.  Thomas discovers that what they are logging is a precious resource, Jobi wood, and so enlists their help to get some flatbeds full of the stuff and then find a way back to Sodor.  He keeps insisting that he knows what's best.  (I make good decisions, that's what I've been told).  Eventually the logging locos end up trapped with Thomas in a tunnel, where they run out of oil.  The engines of Sodor break through the cave-in, and they all get towed to Sodor with the Joviwood to finish the project they are working on.  For the full effect of this post I would suggest watching the movie, especially if you have kids (Gabe seems to love it!).

The whole thing strikes me as allegory for colonialism.  Thomas (the civilized engine) ends up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar engines while taking a trip to the mainland.  This is similar to Columbus' discovery of America while he was trying to find a way to India.  From the get-go he is confident in his abilities to figure out where he is and what to do, but he soon becomes very concerned with how different this place is from Sodor, and becomes more concerned when he begins to hear strange noises from the mist.

It is then that he runs into the Natives, who offer up friendship to him in culturally significant ways.  He rejects their friendship in that he doesn't want to play the games they play, which to him are unimportant.  Here we see a difference in ethos between the two islands, Sodor which values "usefulness" or work ethic, versus Misty Island, which values fun and games, symbolizing interpersonal relationships.  Later on the Locos say, "We weren't really useful, but we were really funny!" which sums up their value system.  It seems that Misty Island is more relational, while individualism tends to reign in Sodor.

Once Thomas discovers that the wood they are logging is Jobi wood, he extols to the Locos the value of hard work, in order to convince them to help him acquire their resources.  They are hesitant, but their interpersonal nature makes them eventually willing to help a "friend" despite the fact that it involves a significant amount of personal sacrifice ("We DON'T have enough OIL!").  In this, he keeps insisting that "he makes good decisions" and the Locos go along, even though they know he is wrong.  Thus it is that in Thomas' ignorance he is doing harm to the native population, but keeps insisting it is for their betterment.  He is imposing a socio-ethical system that may not be particularly suited to the life that the locos lead, but he won't do them the service of looking at it from their perspective.  As a result, he depletes the end of their natural resources (oil) in firing up the log loading machine despite their protests, in order to provide luxuries to those back on Sodor.

This represents a turning point, because now the only way for the natives to survive is to adapt to the colonial way of life, because their natural way of living has become unsustainable.  Thomas has forced their hand, and if they don't help him get the Jobi wood back to Sodor they are doomed.  Thomas is of course oblivious to their plight, only concerned with getting them to help him with his plans.  It is thus that subjugation is born.

He discovers there is a tunnel back to Sodor, which the Locos tell him is too dangerous.  He disregards their opinion, and coerces them into going with him to Sodor, bringing along the Jobi Wood of course.  They discover the tunnel is blocked, it caves in behind them, and the Locos run out of oil, making them completely dependent on the "help" of the Sodor engines.  While in the tunnel the Locos try to explain to Thomas why their way of life is what it is.  Thomas seems to understand a bit and integrates some of their viewpoint into his overarching Sodorian worldview.

In the end, the engines get rescued and transported into Sodor, where they are integrated into the fabric of the island customs and end up being "really useful".  They keep some of their distinctive customs because their radical culture that cares little for being "useful" is no longer a threat, being subjugated to the culture of Sodor.  They are saved from an unpleasant fate by being provided with oil from Sodor, making them reliant on their colonial overlords for their very survival, and thus making sure they don't resume their previous way of life, which would eliminate a free source of Jobi wood for Sodor.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Epic Tomfoolery

Over the weekend I watched the documentary "Man on Wire" with some friends and family, and I must say it was quite an inspiring movie.  I would definitely recommend watching it.  It is about a man who snuck up into the twin towers in the 70's and strung a tightrope between them, then walked across it for 45 minutes. 

It reminded me of the necessity of doing foolish things.  He had no good reason to pull off that stunt, but 35 years later it still brought tears to the eyes of those who were involved.  It was a beautiful act.

Growing up, my brothers and I were constantly doing things that probably seemed like a bad idea to most people.  Most of them involved the river, or big hills.  We never got hurt beyond repair, and it was a lot of fun.  Sometimes you just need to try things, to see what it's like or if it can be done.  I can think of times when we would look at something, think about it for a minute, and then go for it, even when it looked like there was no way it would end well.  Riding a wagon down a huge hill into blackberries, rolling off cliffs in armor of cardboard box, tubing class 4 rapids with our brother standing on shore with a 10' length of rope if we got into trouble, kayaking little creeks when it rained hard, that sort of thing.

This made my childhood fun, and shaped a lot of how I view the world today.  Adventures are a kind of foolishness, typically unnecessary for furthering your life in most senses of the word, but beautiful and exciting and fulfilling in ways you carry with you for a long time.  I still seek out ways to be foolish in order to experience what life has to offer.  Sometimes it can be a bit disastrous.

Other times it can just be a bit silly.

(on a side note, I was actually doing something useful right there.)

As I have grown older my ability to go on epic journeys without a point to them has diminished significantly.  If I hurt myself I can't work, and most trips cost money I don't have.  That's a part of being an adult, and I am alright with that.  Occasionally I still get to do something epically stupid though, and it is still beautiful and life affirming.

(That's me in the tube.)

I am coming to realize that there is a whole new way for me to experience tomfoolery that is even more meaningful than just going on crazy adventures.  I now have a son, and it is time to pass on that spirit to him.

He is getting to the age now where he realizes the fun in being foolish.  It is great to spend an hour doing the same thing over and over and having him laugh every time.  Now we can't even say the word "adventure" without Gabe's ears perking up and his little hands pulling us towards the door.  As he grows older, I look forward to seeing what sorts of craziness he is going to get stoked on, and I hope I can help him along that path.

It's great to be a dad.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Self Mutilation for the sake of the Good in Film and Literature

As I was reading the Symposium I was struck by something Socrates said, and I made a connection with other things I have read and seen in the past.  It brings to mind a few very interesting moral and philosophical questions.  There are three different passages I want to take a glance at in relation to this idea, in chronological order.

Watch the video in my last post, to get an idea of the mythology behind what is being said by Socrates here.  After listening to a speech laying out the origin of love, Socrates gives a speech in response, basically shooting down everybodies ideas like he always does, and in the midst of that speech he says this:

"And you hear people say that lovers are seeking for their other half; but I say that they are seeking neither for the half of themselves, nor for the whole, unless the half or the whole be also a good.  And they will cut off their own hands and feet and cast them away, if they are evil; for they love not what is their own, unless perchance there be some one who calls what belongs to him the good, and what belongs to another the evil.  For there is nothing which men love but the good.  Is there anything?"

This touches on so many Socratic ideas it is hard to get started.  He so offhandedly remarks that a man is willing to chop off body parts here that it can be difficult to take him seriously.   I know that often when there was a physical deformity in those times the only thing to do was to amputate, and in that sense if your foot was no good you would of course cut it off.  To Plato and Socrates, to be good meant to be pleasant or useful.  If your hand was neither, it would be better not to have to deal with it.  I have a friend who had problems with his foot for a number of years.  It wasn't crippling, but it hurt him all the time.  Eventually he cut it off and got a prosthesis to get rid of the problem.  This may be similar to what Socrates had in mind here.

In another sense though, Plato (not Socrates) may be calling attention to Socrates death in this piece.  Socrates was a man who, according to what we know, died rather than give up his conception of good.  Here he is simply stating his modus operundi, to seek the good regardless.  Hands and feet are simply a part of our mortal and changing bodies, but the good is eternal, and to partake in the good is to enter in to the eternal.  In that quest, the casualty of some ancillary parts is unimportant.

A few hundred years later we get to Jesus, who says something similar in Matthew 5:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than to be thrown whole into Gehenna.  And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than to be thrown whole into Gehenna.

In this passage, there isn't any chance of taking him to mean "if your eye or hand is no longer useful", he is clearly speaking of moral stumbling (the specific context is adultery).  Jesus here is setting up a moral standard, and setting that standard against our desire to preserve ourselves.  Just as losing an eye or a hand is serious business, so too is losing a sense of our moral standard.

Though many people I know profess to follow the bible literally, I know of not one person who has taken Jesus at his word here.  I think that if somebody did try to gouge out his eye because he looked at a woman in lust, most would think that person a bit crazy.  Most of us tend to try to look at this verse in a less severe way, because nobody really wants to maim themselves for any reason, despite what Socrates said so offhandedly a few hundred years earlier.

There are 2 things we do to make this verse make sense in our modern world.  One is to spiritualize it in the "Jesus just means we need to get rid of anything in our lives that keep us from loving God."  The other is to say that he meant what he said, but that our eyes and hands don't cause us to sin, it is our hearts.  I think he was more serious though.

There is a large theme in the NT of "death to self" that dovetails nicely with what Jesus is saying here.  Paul talks about the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak.  There is much talk about being "dead to sin but alive in Christ."  The idea here is that there are two warring factions within you; the soul, and the body in which the soul resides.  We might call them our animal nature and our higher nature, or mind/body dualism.  The goal is to live in accordance with our higher nature, which is the part "made in the image of God".

Jesus (and Paul) are telling us to do things to subjugate our body for the sake of our soul.  He wants us to do things to let our body know who is in charge, even if it means hurting the vessel in which we reside.  I don't know whether or not he actually wants us to cut off limbs (I tend to think he was using hyperbole here) but there is a definite call to live with our bodies as prisoners to our soul, instead of the other way around.

Finally we come to the modern period, and a good visual illustration of this very subject.
Warning: This video is rather gross (though fake) and not safe for work.

Here We can see the absurdity of a part of the body not acting in accordance with our will.  Clearly in this situation there was nothing Bruce Campbell could have done other than cut off his hand with a chainsaw.  The thing that makes this scene so funny and disturbing is that we can't imagine things going so wrong that our body rebels against us.  There is no moral to the story because the whole situation is just bad.  He is obviously not responsible for the actions of his hand at this point, but in all actuality, can we even call it "his" hand anymore?  Once it gains the ability to rebel, it obviously has some sort of sentience and is responsible for whatever mischief it causes.

I have lots more I could say on all these things, but I tend to ramble, so I am going to cut this off.  Let me know if there is anything in here you want to hear more about.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Covenant, not Government: The Kingdom of God

Finally we come to the goods.  What was Jesus talking about when he preached about the Kingdom of Heaven?  I believe that Jesus wanted to show us an ideal, a radical departure from the then current rule of the Romans and the Sanhedrin, with every person accountable to God, and submitting to one another.

This is a big topic, and I just want to look at a few elements of it for now.  I will once again go over some historical context, and then take a look in Luke 6:20-49 to see what Jesus can tell us about the new kingdom.

We have in the Old Testament and ancient Jewish sources a form of writing called the covenant (I say writing, because we of course only have the texts.  The form is almost certainly originally an oral agreement, not a written one).  Probably the best example of covenental writing is the book of Deuteronomy, as well as some of the extrabiblical writings of the dead sea scrolls.  A covenant is an agreement between a group of people that gets the seal of approval from God.  Usually it is in regards to how they are to interact with each other, and the writings take a very distinct Jewish form.  They start with a proclamation of the power of God's deliverance by remembering the way he delivered them out of Egypt, or remembering some other incident of God's saving power.  After that they will go on to lay out the laws for their society.  Finally, there will be a proclamation of blessings to be attained by following the covenant, as well as curses layed out for those who fail to follow the covenant. 

A shorter version of a covenant can be seen in Joshua 24.  It is a dialogue between the people of Israel and Joshua, and all the main elements are there pretty clearly.  In verses 2-13 you have the reminders of deliverance.  After that you have the rules of the society he is laying out (fear the LORD, throw away your idols).  The blessings part is missing, however the occasion of the covenant makes the blessings inherent, land and prosperity in the promised land.  The curse can be seen in ver. 19-20.  One thing that is interesting to note in this passage is the voluntary nature of the covenant.  It was an agreement that was entered into by each family by choice, not a mandate for living in the area.

In Luke 6 (as well as the sermon on the mount) Jesus is laying out a new covenant with the people he is talking to.  If you read the passage closely, he is paralleling all the aspects of an ancient covenant, but in a slightly tweaked form.  I believe that the prevalence of these speeches in Luke and Matthew gives us a view into what Jesus' ideal is for people's interaction with each other.  I won't go verse by verse, because it is a pretty long section, but I do want to highlight some things.

In verses 20-26, we have a modernization of the practice of calling to mind God's deliverance.  In ancient israel, when the people were in their promised land, it made sense to hearken back to the times of God's saving power, that He brought them into the rest they experienced.  But for Jesus, in his day, there was trouble all around, and it didn't help that God had once done things.  Instead, what he does is to call to attention the future deliverance of God in the coming of the Kingdom of God.  If you like more theological terms, he is acknowledging the immanent eschaton.  Instead of looking back and saying "see how God delivered us from the hands of the Egyptians and brought us to a land of His choosing" he is saying, "This current suffering will shortly be done away with in God's coming deliverance.  The fortunes of men will be reversed, the present age will pass away, and God's kingdom will come into power."  Note the blessings and woes, a contrast between how things are in the present and how they will be in the near future.

In verse 27 there is a shift.  "But to you who are listening I say:..."  Here Jesus is changing the focus to the substance of the covenant(v. 27-45).  In Matthew we have a much expanded version, but most of the main points are here as well.  Do good and be just, regardless of what the other party is doing.  Do not judge and help one another.  These all relate directly to our social and political interactions.  Jesus is calling us to live out the Kingdom, even before it comes.  It is a call to hasten the coming of that kingdom by enacting it on earth.  This is the covenant that Jesus is inviting us into, an agreement to choose how to live our lives, with a view towards other people.  In the times of Jesus, like today, the poor and downtrodden were falling through the cracks.  There were no "social programs" that the government enacted to help the less fortunate.  The only hope for those with nothing was charity from their neighbors.  Jesus is calling for that to happen, for his followers to voluntarily agree to live out the kingdom in the fallen world.

Note the section on cooperation, and judging others(v. 37-42).  In these verses Jesus is encouraging a new system of leadership based on experience instead of authority.  We are no longer to be rulers and judges over other people, but to aid them in things we have learned, but that they still struggle with.  This is the point of removing the plank in your eye before helping your brother remove his speck.  It is also present in the student not being above the teacher, and the bit about the blind leading the blind.  All over the place in the Gospels we have this idea of the servant leader.  Jesus has no use for a leader who tells people what to do, but instead desires leaders who will teach by example, lifting their fellow man up to their level, so that all can live in peace with one another.

The final portion of a covenant is the blessings and curses for following or not following.  This is to ratify the agreement, similar to a binding signature, with God as the person who is binding it.  Jesus tweaks this part a little bit, but not much.  Verses 46 through 49 comprise this part of the covenant.  Jesus here is not compelling anybody to follow his words, merely stating the consequences for regarding or disregarding his words.  The Kingdom is coming and nobody can stop it.  The wise man will heed the words of Jesus and willingly become an instrument of the kingdom.

In conclusion, we have now seen the ideal kingdom of God as explained by Jesus.  There are no earthly rulers, only leaders who can help others by virtue of their experience.  The poor and downtrodden are looked after by the willingness of the well off to put the welfare of the needy above their own.  We have a kingdom where God is the ruler, no earthly man, much like the ideal that was in place before Israel sinned by asking for a king.  Jesus lays all this out in covenant form, recognizable by the people of his day as a voluntary contract between the individuals involved, and to be followed regardless of what is being done by those not beholden to that covenant.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Christ in the Robber's den: Jesus and Jerusalem

So in studying Jesus' relationship with the Jewish leaders of the day, I have the problem of too many things to talk about.  Much of what Jesus says and does in the synoptics is in opposition to the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.  That being said, I want to focus on a few passages in Mark that I feel illustrate my point pretty clearly while maybe looking at things a little different than usual.

First, as before, some background.  Around the time of Jesus, Judaism wasn't one monolithic religion like we may think of it.  In the Bible we can see there are quite a few groups (Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, etc.) and from other sources we learn of such groups as the Essenes, who had a community at Qum'ran where we got the Dead Sea Scrolls from, and of many popular movements under the leadership of particular individuals (Acts 5:34-40).  The "official" Jewish religion was given some standing within Rome.  They had a court system with the jurisdiction to enforce Jewish laws, they had hearings with the Roman leaders, civil authority, etc.  This group consisted mainly of Pharisees and Saducees.  We see their courts (the Sanhedrin) commanding people to be flogged, but they did not have the ability to give the death penalty.

This authority must have come from Rome, as Israel had not been a free state for hundreds of years, excepting the Maccabean revolt (160-63 CE).  This meant that the Jewish Ruling class had to cooperate with Rome and accept their rule in order to maintain what control they had over the people.  Though this could be considered a religious authority similar to the Catholic Church, it had strong political implications as well, and one of those implications was the ability to collect the tithe (temple tax) a portion of which went to the Romans in addition to the imperial tax we discussed last time.

In the golden years of the nation of Israel, many of the people were farmers and shepherds.  During this time, the tithe and first-fruit offerings made a lot of sense.  Between that time and the time of Jesus, the demographics of the Jewish people changed significantly.  They lost sovereignty of their land, and while many still farmed, there was emerging a larger merchant class as well.  On top of this, many people were displaced in the Roman occupation.  This is the context for the money changers in the temple.  Many people didn't have first fruits or animals to sacrifice, so they had to buy those things in order to fulfill the law.

When Jesus clears the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) he is pronouncing judgement against the system that is in place.  Note the words he uses.  "Is it not written 'My house will be a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"  Similar to his words regarding man's relationship to the sabbath (Mark 2:27) Jesus is proclaiming the proper place of the temple for the worship of God.  In essence, he is saying, "No longer are the priests serving the interests of the people, now the people are serving the interests of the priests."  Things are backwards from the way they are supposed to be, and the cure is a radical reorganization of the priesthood, symbolized by a miniature destruction of the temple.

After that, in Mark 12, this point is driven home in a much more personal way.  The entire chapter is driving towards the same point.  The parable of the tenants is a blatant condemnation of the system.  The leaders know it, and want to kill him for it.  In the confrontation about the imperial tax, which we have already looked at, Jesus is condemning the relationship the Jewish leaders have with the Roman leaders.  Toward the end of the chapter, he focuses it down to a pin-point.

As they are watching all the people putting in their contribution to the temple, a widow comes and throws in a few pennies.  Jesus addresses his disciples.

"Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more in the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on."

The image there is almost too hard to think about.  In the name of the God of Love, the priests are taking the last two cents of a woman who they should be using their resources to support.  There is no social justice, no help for a victim of the hard times in which they live.  The following of the laws and traditions has completely swept aside any sense of social responsibility for the priests.

There are many more verses that I could use to bring the point I am making home (Mark 7:9-13).  Jesus was not just against the hypocrites, he was against the entire system that encouraged hypocrisy.  The real purpose of God's law had been overshadowed by the greed of the religious leaders for power, a power which was made possible by a collusion with the people who were usurping God's throne.

After exploring Jesus' relationship with the powers of the time, I want to shift gears next.  Jesus did set out for us an ideal.  A way of living apart from having rulers.  A direct kingdom of God which we will get into next time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Render unto Caesar: Jesus and Rome

Now I want to talk about Jesus' relationship with Rome, the ruling power of the day. You will note in the introduction that I didn't talk about the "religious powers and the secular powers" but rather about the Roman and Jewish powers.  There is good reason for this.  Back in the Roman empire there was no such thing as separation of church and state.  Religion was integrated into the public sphere in a variety of ways, politics included.  For this reason, you had what may be called the "state cults", deities sponsored by the ruling powers that the people were compelled to worship.  This included the emperor himself as one of the gods.

A little OT history will show how this relates to Jesus, who's life was steeped in OT culture.  The book of Daniel shows very clearly that Kings can have a tendency to force worship from their subjects, a book which Jesus often relates to himself (see Daniel Chapter 3).  It is possible that this relation is partially due to the similarity in situation between his time and the time of Daniel.  The OT furthermore unequivocally equates having a king with false worship.  1 Samuel 8 is really interesting in this regard, especially ver. 6-9.  Compare what is said there to John 19:15 where the crowds scream, "We have no King but Caesar", clearly inferring more than simply an earthly ruler.  To stand against emperor worship cannot be viewed as simply a religious stand, but a political stand as well.  We see later christians being persecuted, not because they worshipped Jesus, but because they worshipped ONLY Jesus.  They wouldn't acknowledge the perceived rightful place of the emperor among the gods.

So there are some background reasons to think that Jesus had a problem with Roman occupation, but the question remains as to whether there are any passages that demonstrate that he felt that way.  For that, I want to unpack the incident of the imperial tax, Mark 12:13-17.

"Later they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words."

So here is the set up.  A few things of note pop out at me, and I want to try to look at this in the context and time that it was written, remembering the Jewish culture of the people involved, and the hardship that comes from the foreign occupation of the land and the heavy associated taxes, on top of the tithes and temple taxes they are paying. 

Some men come up to Jesus while he is teaching.  We know who the Pharisees are, but the Herodians we are less certain about, as they don't come up as often.  Probably they are either king Herod's men, or else Jewish people sympathetic to the Roman occupation.  These people come expressly for the purpose of catching him in his words.  They want to trick him, make him say something to either bring a charge against him or else make him lose face in sight of his followers.

  "They came to him and said, 'Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity.  You arent swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Is it right to pay the imperial tax or not?  Should we pay or shouldn't we?'"

Here is the question.  The picture becomes clearer.  The flattery ensures that he must answer the question, lest he lose his integrity.  It is a challenge to his teaching, and to his truthfulness.  Will you stand up for what you know is right, and go against the Romans, or will you bow to authority and lay a burdon on your people that they cannot handle?  This is the trap they have set for him.  The people are struggling under these taxes, and to pay them is making it hard to survive.  If Jesus says "go ahead and pay the taxes" then he is going against what he knows is right and giving in.  The Pharisees and Herodians know this, or else why would this have been the question with which to trick him?

On the other hand, if he says "don't pay your taxes, the Romans aren't legitimate kings here" then he would be arrested on the spot, which is what the Pharisees would have loved to have happen.  Jesus is in a tight spot here.  Does he give in, or does he make a stand for justice, most likely ending his ministry then and there?

"But Jesus knew their hypocrisy."

This goes deeper than just his knowledge of their trickery.  The entire crowd was aware of the trap they had set, it was no hypocrisy just to set a trap.  There was something inherent in the question itself, being asked by the Jewish leaders, that he was to expose in his answer.  Not only did he know of their intent, he also knew that they knew what was right, and were going against their own teachings.

Often when Jesus is teaching, he demonstrates his lesson by bringing what the people already believe into the light, exposing the hypocrisies of the people who are trying to trick him.  You can see this with his teaching about healing on the Sabbath, as well as when the Pharisees ask by who's authority he does his works.  In these cases he shows that those condemning him are groundless in their accusations, they cannot push the issue without exposing themselves as frauds.  This is the method Jesus will use in the answer to their question.

"'Why are you trying to trap me?' He asked."

Jesus exposes them by getting behind their empty flattery to the root of their plot, not allowing them the pretense of an honest question.

"'Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.'"

Jesus doesn't have a denarius of his own, so he has to ask that one be brought to him.  This is interesting to note.

"They brought the coin, and he asked them, 'Who's image is this? And who's inscription?'
'Caesars' They replied."

Jesus here is forcing the Pharisees and Herodians to acknowledge their hypocrisy.  There is no hint that his point is to show a separation of church and state, but more likely a reference to the second commandment (See exodus 20:4).  In having them recall who's image is on the coin, they are admitting to the crowds that they are worshiping a false god, that even the money they use is an idol to the state cult.  This is the reason that Jesus doesn't use the state money, because just to carry it would be blasphemous, and to use it is to accept that the Romans have the right to rule the land of the Jews.

"Then Jesus said to them, 'Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' And they were amazed by him."

Finally we come to the end, where Jesus answers the question.  He does leave it ambiguous, but by this point the crowds will know what he means.  "Caesar can keep his blasphemous coins, but he is a pretender on God's throne and has no right to our allegiance or respect.  The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it (Psalm 24) so give everything to God, for he is our true Ruler."

In conclusion, Jesus was against the rule that the Romans exercised over God's people.   They were placing burdens on the poor that they couldn't support, and taking God's rightful place in society.

Next time we will talk about Jesus' relationship to the Jewish leaders of the time.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jesus and Anarchy: Part 1

Lately in my studies I have been looking at Jesus and his relation to politics.  I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was what we would call an anarchist.  I think that our views of government today are much different than what they had back then, so the term might not bring up the right picture to the mind, however I think it fits quite well.  For that reason, I first want to clarify what I mean, and then spend a few posts backing up my position.

I believe that Jesus stood in opposition to the control of the people by the politically active forces of the time, both Roman and Jewish.  Jesus advocated an ideal kingdom with no earthly rulers, simply a direct rule of God.

Over the next 3 posts I will defend the three main points of the previous paragraph.  His opposition to Rome, his opposition to the priesthood, and his advocacy of a kingdom without rule.  Stay tuned next time for... "Render unto Caesar: Jesus and Rome".