Multiplicity

What do the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween and Homer’s Odyssey all have in common?

Here’s my take on it.

  1. The Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings

Someone recently said to me, “Joe, you were a lawyer once.  You understand evidence.  You can see that all the evidence supports my position on this.”  The person who said that to me could have been talking about the Kavanaugh hearings.  Like so much media coverage of the hearings, this fellow thought of a trial as the evidence all points in one direction or the other .  My answer to him was that if I’d learned anything in thirty years of bar membership it was that my mother was right: there are always at least two sides to a story, and the truth is generally somewhere in between.  If juries heard only one side’s witnesses and arguments, every verdict would be unanimous.  Is it any wonder that if you tell me what news source you follow, I can pretty well predict how you feel about the world?

In years of practicing law, I saw over and over again how witness testimony polarized over time.  From the plaintiff’s perspective, the size of the wrong and the depth of the injury always grew, while from the defendant’s perspective, the strength of the alibi and the sense of indignation always did likewise.  Add the way politicians and the media frame a case as pitting good against evil, and you have everyone asking which of the witnesses is lying.  In this view, it has to be one or the other.  When I said, about the Kavanaugh hearings, that I thought both witnesses were telling the truth as they saw it, people looked at me like I was some sort of crazed lunatic from outer space.  The hearings, and especially the media coverage of them, left me shaking my head about what made them so typical of polarized American politics today: namely, a complete inability to empathize with the other side.

  1. Halloween

Yesterday, I came across a piece published last year in USA Today titled “5 Halloween Myths and Urban Legends, Debunked.”  Myth Number 3 was titled, “Satan is the Reason for the Season.”  While acknowledging that Halloween can be traced back to ancient Celtic harvest festivals, the article argued that the modern event has nothing to do with Satan, and never could have, as Satan is a Judaeo-Christian character that would have made no sense to the ancient Celtic polytheists who started those harvest festivals.  The article also points out that All Hallow’s Eve is the first of three days Christianity devotes to remembering the souls of the Christian faithful.  The religious origins of the modern holiday have to do with honoring the good dead, not the immortal Satan, the embodiment of evil

But when it comes to Halloween, like the Kavanaugh hearings, people are polarized.  To many, Halloween will always be about pure evil.  For many on both sides, there’s a complete inability to empathize with the other.

  1. The Odyssey.

My first exposure to the Odyssey was probably Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of the classical hero in 1954’s Hollywood version, Ulysses.  While I don’t remember much of that movie, I feel sure that Kirk Douglas’s character must have been very heroic, in the modern sense of that word – which is to say, a particularly good and capable guy fighting the good fight against evil.  My sense of the story has always been that the Cyclops, Poseidon and the suitors were monstrously bad while Odysseus wasn’t far shy of sainthood.  I want to take this opportunity to rave about the new translation I just finished reading by Emily Wilson.  It manages to be an amazingly easy and accessible read while maintaining the strict metrical qualities of the original.  For the first time, I didn’t have to “study” the epic, I could just read it, and do so at the same pace I might read John Grisham or Dan Brown.  As a result, I acquired a sense of the whole as I never have before.   I strongly recommend her translation, whether you’ve read the epic before or not.

Wilson’s excellent and engaging translation gave me several new perspectives about the story.  One is that the very name Odysseus can be translated as “hated” or at least “disliked.”  He’s easy to hate because he’s not just duplicitous, he’s multiplicitous.  There’s something for everyone to hate.  In Wilson’s words, he is “a migrant…, a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero.” Wilson gives much attention to how a person can be so complex and multi-faceted, at once so hated and so loved.  Her Odysseus is anything but the one dimensional champion of goodness that I grew up admiring. Perhaps we see ourselves in him.  Perhaps that’s what allows us to empathize.

It has become common to dismiss the pagan gods as amoral and often wicked libertines that no thinking person could believe were real.  Modern criticism of the Greek gods generally amounts to the argument that they are no better than us human beings.  Wilson points out they’re essentially the same as powerful human beings except that they live forever, but morally and ethically, they’re no better than us.  This strikes me as a natural criticism of deity if you’re comparing it to a God conceived of as morally perfect and all knowing.  But have there been unintended consequences to conceiving of God as the embodiment of perfect goodness and omniscience?  What have been the consequences of living with the aim of achieving such righteousness ourselves?  What have I done by measuring my self-worth by comparison to a single, homogeneous and absolute goodness who has revealed Himself to me?  Has it worked to make me self-righteous?

One reason I’ve always been attracted to Greek myth is that the gods DO behave like human beings.  I’ve long felt that such portrayals allow us to see the consequences of our foibles in archetypal ways that can help us to avoid mistakes as effectively as a lot of sermons I’ve heard.     At their cores, the modern worldview suggests that the difference between good and evil is apparent, and that life is simple: if we choose correctly, we’ll live forever in the home of the gods.  In the old pagan worldview, life is a constant struggle to sort out the difference between good and  bad; that even in the home of the gods, it can be hard to distinguish right from wrong; that sometimes, what seems good to one person (or god) seems bad to another.  In this worldview, there isn’t any Grand Commission of Justice to tell us which is which.

There’s little doubt in my mind that most of us would choose to live in a world where good and evil are clearly defined and labelled. But is the real world more nuanced and dependent on point of view than that?  Wilson points out that Odysseus is offered a perfect and immortal life by Circe, but turns it down, choosing instead his mortal home in his mortal world.  Is that why we can love him and hate him at the same time?  There are good reasons the Bible has stood the test of time.  I think there are good reasons the Odyssey has too.

So: What similarities do I see between the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween, and the Odyssey? For me, all three tell us something about the extent to which Platonic thinking about absolutes has changed the world.  In the pre-Platonic, polytheistic world of Odysseus we could celebrates diverse and multiple perspectives; in the modern world, there must be a single and absolute truth distinguishable by its righteousness.  In the Christian Era, we’re used to hearing the gods of Greek myth dismissed as either “immoral” or “amoral.”  But in the Odyssey, Zeus is the god of justice and of hospitality toward strangers.  One of the most constant themes is that the gods will not approve of mistreating strangers.  It’s not that the Homeric gods don’t care about what’s good and right, but that (just like people) they don’t share a singular and unchanging view of what “goodness” consists of.

Of the many epithets applied to Odysseus (apart from being godlike),  most begin with the prefix “poly-,” meaning multiple.  Odysseus is “poly-tropos” (multiply turning), poly-phrona (multiply-minded), poly-meganos (employing multiple devices), poly-tlas (multiply enduring), poly-penthes (multiply-pained), poly-stonos (multiply-sorrowed) and poly-aretos (multiply prayed for.)  In a sense, this multiplicity makes him all things to all people.  It’s a big part of why he’s hated.  He is also incredibly adaptable, assuming different guises and characteristics in different situations.  His understanding of right and wrong is neither absent nor irrelevant – it is simply changing.

All our modern religious and political instincts tell us to condemn such inconstancy.  We’re trained to think in terms of Platonic absolutes, of clear and perfect Goodness on one side and clear and perfect Evil on the other.  We’re told we can identify the Truth and that we’re bound to adhere to it.  If Professor Ford was telling the truth as she saw it, then Judge Kavanaugh had to be lying, as he saw it.  If Halloween is not a glorification of the Judaeo-Christian God, it must be the work of Satan.  If Odysseus is inconsistent from one day to the next, he must represent an inferior state of being because perfect people have to be constant, unchanging and right.

But is there a difference between being constant, unchanging and right, and being rigid, intolerant, and set in our ways?

I’m not advocating for a rudderless, amoral view of the world.  Goodness is certainly worth striving for.  But how can I know for certain I’ve found it, when others disagree with me about what’s good?  Once again, I’m reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is worth a read for many reasons, but the concept I found most thought-provoking was Haidt’s view on the evolutionary origins of human reason.  The traditional view is that the capacity for reason and logical analysis evolved in human beings as tools for reaching the best conclusions.  In reality, Haidt suggests, human beings wouldn’t have survived unless they could form immediate judgments about things without reasoned analysis.  (You can’t conduct a reasoned analysis of whether to run from a saber-toothed tiger or not.)  But we are also social animals whose early survival depended on the ability to work together in teams.   And to act as a team,  we needed coordinated approaches.  Haidt says our social survival depended on leaders able to persuade others to follow their judgments.  According to Haidt, reason and logical analysis arose about the same time as language did, and they evolved for much the same social purposes: that is, not as tools of decision-making to help an individual determine what’s right, but as tools of persuasion to help convince others to go along with our judgments.  (In the process, we convince ourselves that our judgments are right, too, but that’s a result, not a cause.)

In this view, all of human reasoning has its origins in persuading others, in post-hoc justification to support judgments already formed.  If Solzhenitsyn and Haidt are right, then all the arguments between Professor Ford and Justice Kavanaugh, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, NPR and Fox News, Halloween enthusiasts and its enemies,  and indeed, between you and me, have to do with persuasion, not with what either one of us has always revered as “reason.”

In this sense, maybe Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s truths are similar.  Last year, I blogged about liking Halloween because it invited us to try out the worldview of a character we normally think of us strange, monstrous, or even evil.  Maybe it isn’t bad that we put ourselves in the shoes of terrible others on Halloween.  Maybe it’s okay to change our understanding of right and wrong at times, to try out new perspectives, just like Homer’s Odysseus did.  Maybe multiplicity helps us empathize.

After listing the many (contradictory) traits her Odysseus exhibits, Emily Wilson  writes, “immersing ourselves in his story, and considering how these categories can exist in the same imaginative space, may help us reconsider the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world.”

Maybe she’s on to something there?

– Joe

What If?

Sometimes, “What if” questions lead to breakthroughs in the way we think and live.  What if we could make our own fire?  What if the sun doesn’t really circle the earth?  What if “up” and “down” aren’t really up and down?  What if I’m wrong?

Most of the time, the “what if” questions don’t lead to earth-shattering breakthroughs about the real world.  Most of the time, they posit something that’s impossible, or just doesn’t make sense.  When we ask, “What if the South had won the civil war?” we’re not suggesting that the South did win, just hoping to learn something by contemplating what the world might be like, if it had. I believe there can be value in asking such questions.

So when I ask, these days, what if I’m wrong, I’m not thinking of a mere philosophical acknowledgement that I’m  likely wrong about something .  Rather, I like to ask, what if I’m wrong about something really important?  It’s easy to acknowledge I might be wrong about the best restaurant in town, or the culpability of O.J. Simpson.  No,  I’m thinking on the scale of what if “up” isn’t up, and “down” isn’t down?  And today, I’m wondering, “What if I’m wrong about Jesus?”

I imagine I’ve just alienated lots of people: most obviously, those Christian faithful for whom belief in Jesus is the most important belief in the world, but maybe also those atheists, Jews, Muslims and others who might take offense at the suggestion that belief in Jesus has ever been important to them.  In fact, for non-believers,  if I’m suggesting they might be wrong, I’ve just alienated them by revealing myself  as a closet Christian proselytizer who’s just disclosed a very annoying agenda – right?.

Indeed, therein lies the reason for my question.  What if we’re all wrong about Jesus? Not just those who believe in him, but also those who don’t?  Anyone  whose feathers may be ruffled by the suggestion that belief in him, one way or the other, may not be important after all?

At the mere asking of such a question, a lot of us brace ourselves for the sort of debate we’ve grown used  to – a debate we may have grown tired of  – a debate between those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t.  Jesus himself is said to have predicted  that brother would deliver brother to death, and be hated, on account of him.  (Matt.  10:21-22.)   I’ve always thought it ironic that a figure so identified with principles of loving – not just one’s neighbors  but one’s enemies – would end up at the center of debates, wars, and genocides fought in (or against) his name.  Yet, from the Crusades  to jihads, from the Salem witch trials to modern clashes over sexual identity,  this advocate for love has been at the center of controversy and hate.  Probably because I was raised in the midst of argument between Roman Catholics (my father’s side) and fundamentalist Presbyterians (my mother’s side), I lean toward agnosticism, not only with respect to religion, but politics, psychology, and physics as well.   Agnosticism, after all, is a part of what led me to We May Be Wrong.

But having been raised as a Christian, I have a special interest in the irony of the animosities surrounding Jesus and his followers.  And so I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?”

Now, for me, the proposition that we may be wrong has never meant to suggest we’re wrong about everything, or even totally wrong about any one thing.  I simply start with the acknowledgement that I’m almost certainly wrong about something, and  from there, I move on to the belief that I really have no way of knowing, for sure, which subject(s) are the ones I’m wrong about.  I may be right about a lot of things;  I just wish I could identify what those things were, so that I could jettison all the others.   So I‘m not asking anybody to question all their beliefs about Jesus, or to contemplate the possibility that all of them might be wrong.  Today, however, I do have a particular one in mind.

I think the concept of “belief in Jesus” is unique in the modern world, or very nearly so.  Our language itself suggests as much.  If we say we have “faith” in our generals, we likely mean only that we trust them, that we feel secure under their leadership.  But if we say we have faith in Jesus – or even more so, that we “believe in” him – we usually mean a good bit more than that.

I don’t say, “I believe in dogs,” or “I believe in pepperoni pizzas.”    I might say I believe that such things exist, but not that I believe in them.  If I say I believe in Santa Claus, or in the Easter Bunny, I’m saying I believe that such creatures are physically real, not just figments of fairy tale. When I say “I believe in ‘X’” it’s  usually an abbreviated way of stating a belief in the truth of some specific proposition about ‘X.’   If I say, “I believe in love,” or “I believe in democracy,” it’s the equivalent of saying I believe in the truth of the proposition that love (or democracy) is a good thing.  But if I say, “I believe in Jesus,” I’m not generally understood to be saying that I trust his teaching  or that I believe in the truth of the proposition that he was a good man; I’m understood to be asserting belief in the truth of a very unique proposition about him, and no one else who’s ever lived.  A belief, in fact, that has no parallel in truth propositions about anything else in my vocabulary.

Yet, when it comes to belief in Jesus, discussion often stops right there, at the “I believe” stage.  As soon as we hear “I believe – ”  or “I don’t believe –” it’s as if the “sides” are drawn without ever getting to what it is that one does, or doesn’t, believe about him.  For some reason, Jesus has become a virtual poster child for polarization.  “You’re either with us or against us” often seems the attitude on both sides.

Now, my parents were from different religious backgrounds, and for that reason they disagreed about religion a lot:  Transubstantiation.  Limbo.  The assumption.   The veneration of Mary.  The priesthood.  The authority of the Pope.   The sacraments.  How to pray.  How the world was created.  The list goes on.  Personally, I came to believe their disagreements were symptomatic of the pitfalls inevitably encountered when we start trying to define metaphysical things with words that draw their meaning from the physical.  (Words draw their meaning from their use as applied to shared experiences; when we use them to describe things we claim to be unique, I lose confidence in them.) But while my parents disagreed about many aspects of their Christian beliefs, they were typical of most Christians in one respect:  when they said, “I believe in Jesus,” they were agreeing that Jesus was God.

Now,  I’ve never thought I had a very good idea of what it would be like to be a theoretical physicist, or the President of the United States, much less God.  Whatever it means to be God, if such a person or things exists at all, seems too much to comprehend.    I won’t delve into the nuances of whether my parents meant that Jesus was really God, or just the son of God, or a part of the three persons in one God, or any of the other verbal formulations that had church leaders arguing from the get go.   Years of effort to understand such nuances have only further convinced me that it’s like arguing over the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin.  I, for one, don’t really understand what it means to be God – in whole, or even in part.

And for me, at least, the logic is one of mathematical equality: if I can’t say exactly that “God is X,” then I don’t see how I can say that “X is God.”  And if I can’t understand what it means to say that “X is God,” then I don’t follow how important it could be to believe that Jesus was, or is, or wasn’t, or isn’t.  How can it be important to believe in the truth of any proposition I cannot understand?

For my mother and father, the most important thing I could ever do was to profess my belief that Jesus was God, or the son of God, or (fill in whatever qualifiers you deem relevant.).  Throughout their lives,  I held my ground, refusing to profess a belief in the truth (or falsity) of a proposition I didn’t understand.  This  frustrated the $#@!  out of them.  For my parents, “belief in Jesus” did not mean a belief that he existed, or that he was good, or that he performed miracles, or that he proclaimed the importance of love, or that his advice on human behavior was incredibly wise.  “Belief in Jesus” meant belief that, in some sense or another, he was God.  And – crucially – this belief in the divinity of Jesus made all the difference to them.  Whether I was, or wasn’t, a “Christian” depended on that one thing, not to mention whether I’d spend eternity in heaven or hell on its account

I could believe in dogs, or Santa Claus,  if I thought they existed.  I could believe in the American flag if I thought it represented a good country with good ideals.  I could believe in Donald Trump if I thought he was a good president.  But I couldn’t believe in Jesus – not really – unless I believed that he was, in some way, God.

This core requirement for what it means to be a Christian in our world has permeated the thinking of Christians and non-Christians alike since Paul began writing epistles.  The “divinity proposition” that has attached itself to Jesus – the principle for which martyrs have died, for which wars have been fought, for which heretics have been burned – seems to have caused a divide between believers and non-believers that, from where I sit, has no parallel in human history.  And the gospels report that Jesus himself predicted it!

So I ask, “What if we’re all wrong about Jesus?”  in this respect.

Now, some of you may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong, all this time, to suppose that Jesus was divine.  Others may think I’m asking whether we’ve been wrong to suppose that he wasn’t.  The traditional concept that belief in Jesus’s divinity (or not) is the be-all and end-all of what it means to be a Christian has shaped our understanding.   If you’re a Christian, it determines whether you’re among the “saved;”  if you’re not a Christian, it determines  whether you’re a self-righteous, deluded dreamer, not to mention potentially dangerous because of the strength of your unreasonable convictions.

But what if, properly recorded, preserved, translated, and interpreted, Jesus neither claimed to be divine, nor denied it?  And even more: What if he disapproved of such theological inquiries, seeing them as the downfall of the Pharisees?  What if, when asked by his disciples what he would have them do, his answer was not that they should believe him to be divine come hell or high water, or that their eternal salvation would depend on their belief in any such theological proposition, but, simply, that they should do as he did?  That they should care for the sick, and love their neighbors as much as they loved themselves?

What if, on this single aspect of understanding  –that belief in the divinity proposition is the sine qua non of Christianity –  we’ve all been wrong, all along?  What would the world be like if the central element of Christianity had not turned out to be belief in the divinity of Jesus, but in living the sort of life he’s said to have lived?  What if Jesus were celebrated for teaching, essentially,  “Look, folks, I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with this question of divinity and divine origins.  Haven’t you better things to do, and to talk about, than whether, in one sense or another, I am God?  Stop doing that, please!  Leave it for the Pharisees!”

If that concept had been at the center of Christianity for the past two thousand years,  what would it mean, today, to “be a Christian”?   If Christians had been taught not to concern themselves with whether Jesus was God, would that mean that all the “rooms of my father’s house” would be empty, beccause no one had “believed”?

I’m not saying it’s true, or false, I’m just wondering, what the ramifications would be, for the past two thousand years, if the divinity proposition had never been considered important, and that “Christianity” had been a movement centered on “love thy enemy” and “judge not lest ye be judged” and “care for one another.”

What would have happened to the pagan persecutions of the martyrs?  The history of schisms in Christian churches?  The Church’s persecution of heretics? The Christian endorsement of the African slave trade? Conflicts between Christians and Jews, Muslims and atheists?  The household (and the world)  in which I grew up?

I can hear the condemnation.  To posit a Jesus who disapproved of contemplating his divinity – who counselled against the very thought of such an exercise as non-productive, pointless , Pharisaical, and bound to result in division and strife  – would be to rip out the core of Christianity itself.

But what if we’re wrong about that?

Looking For Heresy in All the Wrong Places

People have different views about the causes of heresy.  There are many, I suppose.  But have you ever considered the role mere words play, in causing heresy?

By heresy, of course, I don’t mean a departure from the One True Religion.  (Not knowing what the One True Religion is, I wouldn’t know a departure from it if it hit me square between the eyes.)  Rather, I mean heresy in the original Greek sense of the word – meaning choice.  Have you ever seen two strangers who agreed right off that God exists, but who, after discussing their ideas of deity long enough, have discovered areas of disagreement?  Have you ever seen how, if they talk about God long enough, those disagreements sometimes fester?  How the sometimes lead to argument and to accusations of heresy, with schism and holy war not far behind?  If so, have you wondered how much of the difference comes down to a difference in words?

Consider Jupiter and Zeus, for example.  To the ears of a modern Christian, Muslim, or Jew, the words Jupiter and Zeus likely produce similar distaste:  after all, Jupiter and Zeus were gods of the Romans and Greeks; which is to say, pagan; which is to say, heathen, or false.  Anyone who worships Jupiter or Zeus today would be considered a heretic.  But the Greek word Zeus is simply a different spelling of the Latin word Deus, meaning god.  (The Greeks didn’t pronounce their word as one syllable, Zoose, as we do.  They pronounced it as two syllables, Dzeh-oos.  You might even say it out loud.  Pronounced with historic authenticity, the relationship to the Romans’ two-syllable De-us is more easily heard if you do.)  The word Jupiter, in turn, was sometimes spelled Diuspiter or Diuspater, and is simply a Romanized spelling of the Greek word Zeuspater.

These differences in spelling are ultimately due to differences of pronunciation.  Since the birth of language itself, differences in pronunciation have resulted from geographic dispersion.  Jack and Jill pronounce words the same way,  but after Jack emigrates to the mountains, after a few generations, his progeny are pronouncing things differently than those in the valley.   If we could roll back time, we could see that an ancient Greek pagan on bended knee to Zeuspater was worshiping the same god as the ancient Roman worshiping Deuspater – or was at least using the same words, just pronouncing them differently.  Furthermore, and most importantly, if we put pronunciation aside (along with its stepchild, spelling) we can see that both Roman and Greek alike were worshiping God the Father.  That is even we use the same words to describe God that the ancients did – “God the Father” – only we pronounce it differently.

Consider another example: the word Jove.  When Henry Higgins said, in My Fair Lady, “By Jove, I think she’s got it!” his exclamation referred to the pagan god Jove, right?  As you likely know, in ancient Rome, Jove was another name for Jupiter.  (In fact, the Romans used Jovis as the genitive case of Jupiter.)  But have you ever considered how the word Jove would have been pronounced in that ancient world?  I’m talking as a student of phonetics, the way Henry Higgins’ studied the pronunciation of Eliza Doolittle.

First of all, the Romans pronounced their J and I like a long E.  (Julius, as in Caesar, was pronounced  Ee-ooh-lee-us.)  We speakers of English sometimes pronounce our i’s the same way – like the i in media, or the second i in idiotic.   When the Romans pronounced Jove, then, the word as they pronounced it began with the sound of our long E, or “ee.”

Moving to the second letter, the o of Jove:  just as in English, the Romans had both a long and a short o, and they were pronounced like the long and short o’s. are in English.  But while we’ve come to pronounce the word Jove with a long o, the Romans pronounced their original with a short one: the same short o sound we use in the words hot, shot, and not.  (I’ll spell that sound here as ah.)  The first two sounds of the Roman pronunciation of Jove, then, would have been the sounds Ee and ah.

Next we come to Jove’s letter v.  If you ever studied Latin, you know that the Romans pronounced their v’s like we pronounce w’s.  (Anatomically, their top teeth didn’t rest on their lower lips.)  That is, they pronounced Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici as Way-nee wee-dee wee-kee.  They’d have pronounced the v in Jove as if it were written with an English w.

This brings us to Jove’s final e.  The Romans knew of no such thing as the English “silent e” at the end of a word.  A final e was always to be pronounced.  It could be long or short.  If, as in the ablative form Jove, it were short, it would have been pronounced eh, as in the English word bed. If long, it would have been pronounced ay, like the e of paté or the Spanish que.

Putting those four facts of Roman pronunciation together, we find that the Roman pronunciation of “Jove” would not have been anything like the way Professor Higgins pronounced it.  Julius Caesar would have pronounced  J – O – V – E  as Ee – Ah – W – Eh or EE – Ah – W – Ay.  Try it yourself, if you like: say Ee-ah-w-eh out loud.  As many times as he played the recording over and over again, Professor Higgins would have had a heckuva time distinguishing the sound of Jove from the sound of Yahweh.

Imagine what an argument might have sounded like, when an ancient Roman and ancient Jew debated whether Jove or Yahweh was the real God the Father!

“It’s Yahweh,” says the Jew.

“Not it’s not!  It’s Ee-ah-w-eh!” says the Roman.

Sadly,  I think, genocides, crucifixions, and jihads have come from differences not much more substantial than that.

Which brings me to my final word for today:  Ignosticism.  It should not be confused with agnosticism.  It is a philosophic concept which maintains that it isn’t possible to “believe in God” without first having a clear idea of what the word “God” means.  It goes to the heart of the difference between saying that we know something about a subject and knowing everything about it.

To illustrate, if Jack’s God were good and Jill’s bad, we’d likely say they did not believe in the same god. If Jack’s god created the world, but Jill’s didn’t, likewise.  If Jack’s were omnipotent and everlasting, and Jill’s wasn’t, likewise.  But how far down that path should we go?  If Jack’s god threw Lucifer out of Heaven, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s turned water into wine, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s god tells us to pray toward Mecca, or to cut off our foreskins, or to not eat meat on Friday’s, and Jill’s doesn’t, can they be talking about the same God?  At what point does it make sense to feel confident that two people, each of whom shout from the mountaintops that “I believe in God,” actually believe in the SAME god?

I mean, if you know a guy name Abe Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865, and I know a guy by that same name who was very much like yours – a lawyer, an Illinois Republican with a wife named Mary Todd who once argued cases for the railroads, etc – but my guy is still alive in Honolulu, then we’re talking about two different Abe Lincolns, right?  If your car is a 2014 Toyota Avalon with a beige leather interior and XM radio, and so is mine, we’re still talking about two totally different cars unless they share precisely the same Vehicle Identification Number inscribed on the body, right?  When we’re talking about real people or things, we’re used to thinking that either they share precisely the same histories, behaviors, and other characteristics, or they’re two distinct things, right?  Conceived that way, do two people ever believe in the same God?

I believe that early in human history, there were many who shared a similar feeling that the sky was like a father who lived above mere mortals and, when so disposed, fertilized the soil below.   At some point, people who shared that vague analogy – or who had experienced the same Creator in the Garden of Eden – began using the ancient equivalent of words like “father god.”  As our numbers grew, some of us moving across mountains, others sailing across seas, the words with which we shared the analogy evolved in different ways no less than the tortoises of the Galapagos.  As we focused on nuances and details, we eventually developed detailed systems of words to define our beliefs and practices.  Vaguely-defined analogies to a heavenly father became debates over methods and the time of creation; analogies to biology became arguments over the possibility of a virgin birth; analogies to fatherhood led to schisms over whether Jesus of Nazareth was a son, and if so, an “only begotten” one; and belief in a common father-god led to  holy wars among peoples, all of whom believed in the One True God of Abraham, but who adopted very different traditions about which of the descendants of Abraham was an incarnation of that God, and which His mere prophet.

If I proclaim “I believe in God,” my dear mother (may she rest in peace) may rejoice for me.  At the same time, my agnostic friends may wonder what purple Kool-Aid I’ve gotten into.  Among my friends who are believers, some may express happiness at my new-found faith, but may wonder if I believe in the same god they do.  To all of them, I can only express that I am, if anything, a heretic.  I am a heretic in the word’s original sense: I have made a choice regarding the words I use to express my sense of awe and appreciation.  I choose the words I do carefully and with great reserve, because it seems to me that words get in the way. Indeed, it seems to me that unless I’m willing to say that my god exhibits all the same inherent characteristics, engages in all the same activities, and condones all the same behaviors, rituals, and forms of worship that someone else’s god does, then I don’t know what it is I’d be trying to communicate by saying “I believe in God.”  Does the assertion have any meaning if we have no common understanding of what “God” is? Ignosticism holds that it does not.

I share (with most of humankind, I think) a sense of awe at Creation, an intuition that there’s something more powerful than myself, a sense of reverence, even thanks, for that which brought all this to be.  I share with many a sense of trust that, in the end, its all a good thing.  But when a government form asks me what religion I am, I fear that “ignostic” will cause someone to think I mean agnostic.  If I put “heretic,” I’ll risk being ostracized by those who mean something else by that word, something that at times has caused people to be burned at the stake.   And in the end, I think that if we want to find the root causes of heresy, we may have been looking in all the wrong places.  Words, I believe, are among the root causes of heresy, because words are our own fickle creations, laden with all the nearsightedness and subjectivity of which we ourselves are made.

 

MLK and the Dream

I had a dream last night;  I woke up this morning thinking about it. And my train of thought went from there to Martin Luther King’s dream.  Remembering the late civil rights leader led me to contemplate a sort of ironic coincidence: that last Monday – the 16th – the Martin Luther King Holiday – was the very day I made the final revisions to my novel, Alemeth, and began the process of formatting it for the printing company.

Completion of the novel is the fulfillment of a dream.  I could trace its origins back to the early 1960’s, possibly even to the very year of King’s famous 1963 speech.  That was when my grandmother first showed me some of the letters my great uncle Alemeth had written home from the front lines during the Civil War.   Or I could trace its origins to a dinner that Karen and I had with our friends Roger and Lynda ten years ago, when a lively discussion got me thinking about a novel that explored (or even tested) the differences between fiction and non-fiction.  Or I could trace it back seven years, when I chose to write Alemeth’s life story.  No matter how far back I go to date the novel’s origins, it has been many years in the making. Somewhere along the way, a novel based on Alemeth’s life became a dream, and it seemed ironic that the dream had finally been fulfilled on the Martin Luther King Holiday.

But the coincidence seemed ironic for reasons deeper than that my novel has been sort of a dream for me.  It seems ironic because the themes of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and the themes of Alemeth are so closely related.

For King’s dream, we need scant reminder.  “[O]ne day… even the state of Mississippi… will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” “[M]y four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” My great uncle, Alemeth Byers, the title character of my novel, was the son of a cotton planter in Mississippi.  The family owned sixty slaves when the Civil War began.   In calling Mississippi “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,” Martin Luther King had been talking about my family.

Early in my research into Alemeth’s life, I began to confront what, for me, was terribly unsettling.  I knew my grandparents to be among the kindest, most “Christian,” most tolerant people I knew.  But as I grew older, my research into their lives, and into their parents’ lives, revealed more and more evidence of racial bigotry.  In old correspondence, these prejudices pop up often – and most alarming of all – when I looked honestly at the historical record, I saw those prejudices getting passed down, from generation to generation.

In one respect, I felt I was confronting a paradox of the highest order.  My mother was kind and loving, and my sense was that her kindness was in large part because her parents had been kind.  My instincts applied the same presumption to their parents, as if “loving and kind” was a trait carried down in the genes, or at least in the serious study of Christian Scripture.  (My grandmother was a Sunday School teacher; my childhood visits to her house always included Bible study.). Presuming that my great grandparents were as kind and loving as my grandparents, and knowing that they, too, had been devout Christians, I found it paradoxical that all this well-studied and well-practiced Christianity not only tolerated racial bigotry but, in great uncle Alemeth’s day, was used to justify a war to preserve human bondage.  Frankly, it made no sense.  I wondered: How did these people square their Christian beliefs with their ownership of so many slaves?  With their support for a war intended to preserve their “property rights” in these other people?

It was even more unsettling, then, to realize how the “squaring” had occurred.   George Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery (Charles Scribner, New York, 1857) made a fascinating read.  That work expounded, in argument after argument, based on scripture after scripture, how God had created the separate races, given Moses Commandments which made no mention of slavery, instructed the Israelites to make slaves of their heathen enemies (Leviticus 25:44-46), sent a Son to save us who never once condemned slavery though he lived in its midst, and inspired Saint Paul to send the slave Onesimus back to Philemon with instructions to be a good, obedient slave to his master.  Armstrong’s work was perhaps the most impactful, but by no means did it represent an isolated view.  My research uncovered source after source that made plain how the slave owners of the ante-bellum South were able to square their support of slavery with their Christianity: they did so by interpreting Christian Scripture as supporting the institution.  Indeed, in some sermons of the day, the case was made that being a good Christian required a commitment to the defense of slavery, because civilized white people had a Christian duty to care for their “savage” African slaves.  In the end, of course, they were so convinced they were right that they were willing to go to war and fight (and die) for it.  (Their cause being a righteous one, the killing of people in support of it met all the requirements for a “Just War” as traditional Christian doctrine expounded it.)

For me, it was an eye-opener to realize that southern Christians based their support of slavery squarely on Christian scripture.  It was also an eye-opener to see how the beliefs and attitudes of the community were shared, both horizontally and vertically.  By horizontally, I mean how family members, neighbors, newspapers, courts, elected representatives, school teachers and preachers all worked together to homogenize the Southern attitude toward slavery.  (It was rare to find a voice of dissent – the conclusion seems compelling that the few dissenters tended to keep their opinions to themselves, for fear of being run out of town, as those considered “unsound on the slavery question” generally were.)  By vertically, I mean how attitudes and beliefs were passed down from one generation to the next, most strongly within immediate families, but also within whole communities and cultures.  My research extended back in time to the racism of our national heroes, Washington and Jefferson, and forward in time through my grandparents, my parents, and –

Indeed.  What about myself?  Historical research proves again and again how, once accepted in a family or community, “wrong” attitudes and beliefs can be passed down so easily from one generation to the next.  Is it possible I could be exempt from such influences?  Somehow free to form my opinions entirely on reason and logic, safe from any familial or cultural biases? All my historical research has led me to conclude that we are most  prone to be blind to the wrongness within that which is most familiar; if that’s true, what are the ramifications for my own attitudes and beliefs?  How much of the racism inherent in my family history manages to cling to my own way of thinking?  I hope none of it, of course, but how likely is it that some of it persists?

I will repeat a quote from  The Gulag Archipelago, which I already mentioned in a prior WMBW post and which I managed to squeeze into Alemeth as well.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn expressed a wish for an easier world:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I’ll have more to say in later posts about what psychologists call the “bias blind spot.”  For now, suffice it to say that much as I share King’s dream for a day when prejudice will be a thing of the past, I fear that as long as we have families, as long as parents teach their children, as long as such a thing as “culture” exists, we will all have our prejudices.  Many of them, I believe, will have been inherited from our parents and grandparents.  Others from school teachers, preachers, news sources, national heroes, or friends.  A rare few, perhaps, we will have created entirely on our own.  But they will be there.  And others who see this the same way I do have suggested an idea that makes a great deal of sense to me: that to begin the path toward a more just world, we’d do well to begin by trying (as best we can) to identify what our own biases are.

In Alemeth, I have tried to take a step in that direction.  Early in the evolution of the novel, I found myself asking whether it was I who was creating Alemeth, or Alemeth who had created me.  It’s a novel about my family – about the culture that began the process of making me what I am – and it’s not an entirely pretty picture.  But the dream that inspired it, and the research and thought given to the project, is also largely responsible for the existence of something else.  I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away if I give you a hint: the last four words of the novel are “we may be wrong.”

— Joe

Some Thoughts, this Christmas Eve

On the WMBW home page, a brief bio refers to my personal religious leanings as “other — really.”   To elaborate at any length might ruin the Holiday Season for most of you, and it’s Christmas Eve: a voice in my head (that of my late mother, I suspect) urges me to mark the occasion with something appropriate to the season.  So I have a few things to share.

First, I highly recommend David Wong’s wonderful article, “10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (and Must) Agree On.”  It’s from the December 16, 2007 issue of Cracked.  (Along with Mad magazine, Cracked deserves at least some credit or blame for making me the man I am today.)  But while Wong’s article is humorous in many respects, it’s also very much in tune with We May Be Wrong.  Well, sort of.  I mean, actually, since Wong’s 10 Things article has had over 1.8 million views, that’s a bit like like saying the ocean’s in tune with the last drop of rain to fall into it. But I hope you catch my drift.  I really wish not just 1.8 million, but 1.8 billion, had read Wong’s article.  In addition to being the sort of article I’d love to publish on this website, it also has a bunch of really cool pictures. Check them out!

http://www.cracked.com/article_15759_10-things-christians-atheists-can-and-must-agree-on.html

Second, that same voice (yes, now I’m sure it belongs to my late mother) tells me that because it’s Christmas eve, I ought to say something about Jesus.   And since I respect Jesus at least as much as I respect David Wong, I’ll post four of my favorite things about Jesus.

1. He is said to have preached that one should love one’s neighbor, and even one’s enemy.

2.  He is said to have preached, “Whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

3. He apparently instructed his followers not to swear.  As I read it, he didn’t seem to be talking about four-letter words; rather, he seemed to be warning against swearing to the certain truth of anything.  (“Swear not at all: neither by heaven… nor by the earth…because thou canst not make one hair white or black.  But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”)

4. It is said that he repeatedly asked his followers, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

I’d like to think that with that sort of philosophy, if Jesus had been connected to the internet, he might not have disapproved entirely of We May Be Wrong.

My third Christmas offering is a link to a You-Tube video of this season’s performances at our (backyard) Friend’s Theater.

I know that my mother would have liked it.  She was an ardent Christian, but she was also a ham.

As for Jesus, I’d like to think he wouldn’t have been offended that we chose Clark Clement Moore’s poem to perform this season, rather than Luke’s rendition of the Nativity.  As I read the gospels, Jesus comes across as a pretty humble guy who (laughing with us, not at us) might have chuckled at our ineptness — and that’s what I like most about him.

-Joe