Saturday, March 08, 2014

Quebec Charter Troubles

A closer look at the Bill 60, the so-called 'Quebec Charter of Values', has me scratching my head. I don't claim to be a legal expert. I probably don't have the correct technical vocabulary at my disposal. Still, I can't help but think that the Charter's proposed amendments to the Preamble and Section 9.1 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedom (1976) with a lengthy reference to the values it promulgates--values things like 'state secularism' and 'religious neutrality', etc.--has overstepped some legal limit or violated some legal precedent. From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), to the American Bill of Rights (1789), to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms itself, no one seems to have thought it necessary to enshrine the secularity of the state.*

That is very strange. That is so strange, in fact, it deserves a moment's pause. Every single one of these other documents are bona fide 'secular' documents. They are 'the real deal' as far as pieces of secular legislation go. So why the difference?

My honest answer is that I don't know. I have my suspicions, of course. What I don't have is the knowledge or resources at hand to provide an exhaustive literature review. The best I can do is list a few things that come to mind.

My leading suspicion is that in amending the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the PQ government has not the foggiest idea for what exactly bills/charters of rights are traditionally intended. Such documents were drafted for the protection of individual citizens against the arbitrary depredations of the state's representatives. Such documents are made law so that everyone plays by the same rules--and so, by extension, persons in position of authority don't abuse the authority the state delegates to them to see that its business is carried out.

It would never occur to the drafters of these bills/charters of rights to define the state as secular because their character is already intrinsically secular. It is in the very thing they give formal definition: that every single person possesses something like 'inherent dignity' and 'inalienable rights', which cannot be altered by any 'external' consideration--like a physical or mental handicap, or physical appearance or choice of clothing, or the sorts of groups they associated with, to name but a few possibilities.

By adding reference to the secularity of the state to the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Charter of Values seems to fall into the error of treating the state as if it were an individual, whose dignity and rights needed protecting. But protection from what or whom? Other individuals?

When a state has enshrined its own secular character alongside the dignity and rights of individuals, it seems to me something has gone very wrong. The state outsizes all the other persons in the room. In practical terms, the law no longer protects the 'inherent dignity' and 'intrinsic rights' of individuals qua individuals, but privileges individuals qua some external consideration or other.

While I have no objection to the Quebec government legislating for the protection French language and culture, using the Charter of Values to amend the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms seems to be the wrong way to go about things.

The latter Charter is a great deal less free, after all, when the former Charter requires the following caveat is made:

“In exercising those freedoms and rights, a person shall also maintain a proper regard for the values of equality between women and men and the primacy of the French language, as well as the separation of religions and State and the religious neutrality and secular nature of the State, while making allowance for the emblematic and toponymic elements of Québec’s cultural heritage that testify to its history.”


*A friend of mine pointed at that the French Constitution of 1958 actually does make explicit reference to the secular character of the state. I note it also makes reference to the French language. The more I think about this, the more 'French' the Quebec Charter of Values looks, and the more Anglophone my thought processes appear.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The PQ's Catholic Hangover

The Quebec Charter of Values, otherwise known as the controversial Bill 60, is a peculiarly Catholic document. The irony ought not be lost on anyone. The document is essentially a lengthy reflection, in the form of a piece of proposed legislation, on the nature of secularism. It holds up as an ideal the separation of 'religion' and 'state', but ends up perpetuating a very Catholic notion of secularity. The long arm of the Catholic Church, it seems, still exerts its influence long after the Quiet Revolution. The evidence is there for everyone to see in Chapter 1, Section 1, in which the state's secularity is affirmed except in instances related to Quebec 'cultural heritage that testify to its history'. But that is only a superficial matter. The influence of Catholicism runs much deeper.

The idea of religious beliefs propagated in the contemporary media is of truth claims that can be easily disproved by the methods of natural science. Evangelical creationism falls into this category, as does a general disbelief in miraculous occurrences. Other examples of this way of characterizing religion can easily be found. But this is to misrepresent broad sweeps of religious belief and practice. The idiom that religious beliefs, in particular the 'ethical monotheisms' Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, more naturally make their home is that of political theory, of law and contract, of judgment and negotiation. The practical expression of what are sometimes undoubtedly abstruse metaphysical claims respecting God are found in relations between persons. Hence sacred texts stipulate morality, lay out a general order for relations between rulers and subjects, and advocate for the materially disadvantaged.

Different religious traditions nonetheless are constituted by different emphases. In the Western world, for example, there are very generally speaking two forms of atheism: Protestant atheism and  Catholic atheism. These engender two very different responses to religion. The basic difference comes down to how authority is understood to be mediated to individual, whether in the form of a text (like the Bible) or in the form of a person (like a priest or bishop). On the whole, Protestantism tends to be more textually-oriented, whereas Catholicism has a much more clerical focus. Hence, when persons with a Protestant background embrace atheism, it tends to be an atheism of a more cerebral sort, which hones in on the 'irrationalities' of religious belief. While, when persons with a Catholic background reject the faith, their rejection tends to assume an anti-clerical form.

The same sort of logic applies to how one understands secularism. Protestant secularism tends to be more abstract, to concern itself with how a person thinks, rather than with how a person appears. As long as a person's outlook regarding the public sphere lines up with the rest of us secularly-minded folk, they can think what they want (within reasonable limits) and wear what they want (at the risk of drawing stares). On the other hand, Catholic secularism assumes the aforementioned anti-clerical form and fixates on the manifestation of authority. The differences between Catholic and Protestant secularism, of course, are not hard and fast. But I find the difference of priorities between Francophone and Anglophone communities too uncanny to pass by without comment.

The sorts of things being proposed in the Charter should now come into clearer focus.

The main task of the Charter is to legislate how the representatives of the sovereign authority shall manifest its secular nature. It identifies both the covering of the human face and the overt display of religious symbols as fundamentally contrary to state secularism. Persons in the employ of the provincial government, who are the visible manifestations of its authority, are instructed to remove any offending garment or decoration in the prosecution of their duties.

Notably, I think, the Charter does not bother to define what secularism is, nor what religion is, nor what the religious neutrality of a secular state is. The only concrete statements it makes regards how the employees of the provincial government ought to appear while the dispense with their duties. The rest is simply assumed.

So Catholicism continues to leave its negative impress on Quebec politics. Proof is found in Anglophone exasperation over what is perceived to be the unfair targeting of Muslim women under the thin veil of disinterested secular state. Anglophones cannot understand why what a person wears matters as much as it does, nor why it commands as much support as it seems to have among Francophones. Whereas persons like Premier Pauline Marois and Minister Bernard Drainville seem genuinely perplexed why anyone would oppose the idea of a employees of the provincial government conforming to some basic secular standard of dress.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Another Quebec Referendum in the Works?

In the distant recesses of my memory, there is a vague recollection of 100,000 Anglophones traveling to Montreal to tell Francophones that a united Canada needed the province of Québec in order to be whole.

The large-hearted gesture seems to have had the desired effect. The referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1995 was settled with a decisive 51% voting against leaving the federal union of Canada. I remember commenting to one of my high school friends that a second defeat meant the sovereignty movement was now likely to disappear entirely from the Canadian political landscape.

At the time, I had no notion that I would ever make a home in Québec. The province, for all intents and purposes, was a foreign country. But it was something I was taught about in Canadian history class or learned about reading Canadian history books. In my mind, as a Canadian--which, as an Ontarian, is how I thought myself--I identified with Quebecers because they too were Canadian.

It did not matter that I had never (at least to my knowledge) met a Quebecers. The stories were enough to sustain the mental connection. On the Plains of Abraham, my heart was with the valiant Montcalm, not perfidious Wolfe; just as it was with stalwart Brock on Queenstown Heights, not the American invader. That Canada was an anachronism in both these instances mattered not one bit. Montcalm the Frenchmen and Brock the Englishmen stood for what would become Canada. So also with the French habitants and the Loyalist settlers in the Maritimes and Ontario. They stood for the Canada I inherited, and so they were both my figurative ancestors. (I cannot be the only person who grew up thinking this way.)

My Canada is bilingual and multicultural. My Canada embraced more than my lingually-challenged and culturally flat-footed self ever could be. At the same time, living in Montreal the past 4.5 years has allowed idea of Canada to mature. I now recognize my Romantic idea of Quebeckers was the idea of an Ontarians--an Anglophone's vision of what Francophones should be.

Yesterday Premier Pauline Marois has called a provincial election on what nearly every observer and political commentator agrees are identity issues. The PLQ staked their political fortunes on the so-called Charter of Québec Values. The reasons appear entirely cynical. After the PLQ won its minority government, its movement in the polls was flat. And then, for causes that appear inexplicable to an Anglophone, the party's prospects immediately improved after they found their wedge issue.

Whether Marois' thought processes were essentially cynical is a chicken and egg question. Which came first? The PLQ's Charter of Québec Values, or the voter's desire for something like it? By fixating our attention on the actions of a few individuals on top, we risk misunderstanding the dynamics on the ground.

For the moment, the Charter seems to have done its work. The time has been judge right for the PLQ to seek its majority in the provincial legislature. That, by calling an early election, Marois is backtracked on a resolution from last year to fix the date of the next election is immaterial at this point. Whether she is perceived to have used the election to avoid testifying before a legislature committee to her involvement in her husband's alleged misuse of government funds may not be. The Liberals and there CAQ are both likely to use these barbs to great effect.

But, as strange as it sounds, Québec is the one place in North American where it's not the economy: it's identity, stupid! Campaigning on the virtues of the Charter seems also the perfect way to test the waters for a future referendum. It is a way to change the political conversation, and even to generate future support. The PLQ can also count on the fact that the rest of Canada's attitude towards Québec has changed significantly in the last two decades. One hundred thousand Anglophone's are not making the trip to Montreal this time around.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Christmas Story: The Coronation of Charlemagne

On Christmas Day in the year 800, the Frankish king Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, was crowned the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III.  These facts represent the substance of a Christmas story rarely told.

Christmas stories are various and sundry. There are children’s stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the scriptural narratives of Jesus’ birth, or morality tales like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The story of Charles’ coronation stands apart from the rest by being both factual and mainly a matter of academic discussion.

Unlike Rudolf or Scrooge, Charles is an actual historical figure. Unlike Jesus, the contested meaning of his earthly life does not inspire cultural crusaders to draw up battle lines. Though impressive in his own right, Charles cuts a rather mundane figure across the backdrop of human history. With so many other impressive figures from which to choose, he very easily slips from view.

But that is not to say his story should not be taken down from the shelf and dusted off once and awhile.

The details are uncontroversial. Charles entered St. Peters to celebrate Christmas mass. While kneeling before the altar, the pope placed a crown on his head and proclaimed him the Holy Roman emperor.

No one contests that a coronation took place on Christmas Day in the year 800. Owing to the distance in time and the scanty amount of evidence presently available, however, the meaning of the coronation is not entirely clear. Was the coronation the brainchild of the pope or the king? Which party gained the advantage over the other? His biographer Einhard tells us that Charles was caught unawares when the pope named him emperor. Doubtless this was a well-crafted piece of political theatre. The humble king may be seen by all not to have sought this high office. The pope, as the exalted head of the Church, the Vicar of Christ, raises another up to oversee the mundane, worldly affairs of Christendom—its administration, defense, and the like, so that he could get back to the business of shepherding men’s souls to their eternal home. Both the ends of Church and State were served.

Charles gained nothing but a title in his coronation, since he already had a kingdom. The oldest son of Pepin the Short, he was co-ruler of the Franks from 768-771 with his brother Carloman.  Just as war between the fractious siblings seemed about to break out, Carloman died from what were apparently natural causes. The source materials give us no reason to suspect any misdeed on Charles’ part. Nor would we expect them to. It is almost inconceivable that any medieval historian would begin the narrative of the reign of so successful of king as Charles with betrayal and murder. Lacking evidence, we may only gesture into a speculative void about what was actually the case.

But it is very easy to infer from the events of his life that Charles wanted an empire, and by implication the title that went along with it. Much of his life was spent in the saddle. He saw action in present-day France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Everywhere the borders of his realm were extended, northwards into Saxony, southward beyond Barcelona, and eastward towards the Danube. To his credit, Charles was also responsible for a series of economic, monetary, educational, and ecclesiastical reforms. These efforts were collectively responsible for the brief flowering of Frankish culture known as the Carolingian Renaissance. They could not have been affected, except for the support Charlemagne lent to the Church and to its institutional reform.

Ties between the Frankish court and the papal curia grew apace. The Church was a source of both clerical (i.e. religious) and clerical (i.e. administrative) support. So when Pope Leo fled Rome in 799, he went to Charles for help regaining temporal jurisdiction over the papal seat.  Charles made his way to Rome in November of 800. And a little more than a month later, at Christmas mass in St. Peters, Leo crowned him Imperator Romanorum, ‘Emperor of the Romans’. This had a double significance: it restored to the West the imperial authority that had departed three centuries earlier to Constantinople in the East; and it formally severed ties that had already been severed in practice with the Roman (read: Byzantine) Empress Irene in Constantinople. The material resources of the Eastern Roman Empire had long since become insufficient to maintain the temporal holdings of the Church in Rome proper against the predations of the Lombard lords.

His biographer Einhard claims Charles had no knowledge of the pope’s intention, and would not have agreed if he had: ‘[H]e at first had such an aversion that he declared that he would not have set foot in the Church the day that they [the imperial titles] were conferred, although it was a great feast-day, if he could have foreseen the design of the Pope.’

Every Christmas story, we all know, ought to have a moral. That being the case, we must search for moral to the story of Charles’ imperial coronation.

Perhaps we might see in Charles’ coronation a caution against confusing the jurisdictions of Church and State. The pairing of Charles and his biographer Einhard are strikingly similar to Constantine and his biographer Eusebius. The latter pair has come under considerable criticism in recent centuries for drawing the politics and religion closer together than our modern liberal sensibilities are comfortable with. We might also draw a salutatory lesson about the grand pretensions of political theatre. The vociferous claims Charles made about not having wanted an imperial mantle do not pass the smell test.  The formal imperial inauguration only confirmed in theory what had already come to pass in practice.

These assessments contain a measure of truth in them; but they both go against the grain of human history. Time always moves forward, even as we look back and assess from where exactly we have come. The past was no different. Whatever judgment we pass against Charles must be made with this in mind.

Charles ought to be judged against his predecessors, just as we must judge ourselves against our predecessors—one of whom among was Charles. It makes no sense reverse the temporal priority and judge Charles against his successors, among whom we must number ourselves—no more than it does to judge ourselves against the unknown and unknowable achievements of a future generation. The past is a wide as humanity, while the future can be as narrow as one’s own self. Precisely because the future is not yet, nothing is there against which to measure ourselves.

The appropriate comparison is made with the pharaohs of Egypt, the kings of Babylon, and the emperors of Rome. Set alongside their imperial rhetoric, Charles’ denial to have sought an imperial mantle is startling. It matters very little, in fact, that Charles’ display of humility was only pretense. What matters was the pretense was believed necessary in the first place. Over the course of a millennium, the basic forms of political legitimation seems to have been entirely inverted. The rulers of the ancient empires claimed to be gods or sons of gods. At least in theory, even if theory was not completely realized in practice, they were the all-powerful manifestations of divinity on earth. They were the soul animating the body politic; the lives of men were theirs to dispense with as they saw fit. The degree of divinity to which a ruler in the ancient could lay claim, in fact, appears a function of the density, size, and sophistication of the civilization. The larger the political entity, the more precarious its existence; which meant that the measure of authority required to maintain a political entity increased exponentially, until it became only natural for kings to liken themselves to gods.

A clear division between Church and State is the first indication that something fundamental had changed in the transposition from the Ancient into the Medieval worlds. The authority of the gods over men is no longer concentrated in a single person; it is differentiated into separate forms, which serve to limit each other. The key to the transposition is in the pretended humility. The basic form of authority in the Ancient world was of the gods over men. Whereas the basic form of authority in the Medieval world was of God become man, and more precisely, a vulnerable infant. The actual exercise of authority may still entail the command of one man over the rest, but, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, it now slouches towards Bethlehem.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Funding the Humanities

I won't bother claim to be a dispassionate or disinterested proponent of the humanities. A program of religious studies, like the one in which am I enrolled, is about as humanistic as it gets. Not everyone would agree with the characterization, of course, but the inference is a sound one. Faculties of religious studies got their start as programs in the secular or scientific study of religion. They were supposed to be non-confessional; and so were much less concerned with in the nature of divinity than they were in what this or that belief in divinity said about the human beings who held them. Focus was on the one thing about human beings that is difficult to explain away on other terms: why we believe what we think to be the case about X (where X can anything under or over the sun), rather than merely what we think about X.

So my numbness to the fact we in our collective wisdom have decided the humanities simply aren't valuable in the broad scheme of things thaws a little when the economist Christina Paxson offers 'The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities' over at the New Republic. The piece is an effort to turn the table on the standard arguments against funding the humanities. If we in our collective wisdom deemed the humanities valuable, some of the monies pouring into faculties of science and medicine would be reassigned to history, philosophy, and the fine arts. The federal government would apportion a lot more money to research grants in African literature or Asian antiquities. And employers would eagerly hire persons demonstrating a capacity to learn, critical analyze, and achieve research and/or other goals. 

But money isn't pouring in. Paxson points out the rationale for governments to invest in the so-called S.T.E.M. subjects--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--is a simple matter of connecting the dots. The payout is calculably predictable, much like the sort of stuff dealt with in the subjects themselves. The same cannot be said of the humanities. Figuring out the monetary value of a study of the relationship between the two parts of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, for example, is like tilting at windmills. A post-structuralist reading of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates suffers from similar pecuniary under-determination. These cannot be quantified in the same way the matter of the S.T.E.M subjects can be quantified. The consequence is that public servants, who must give an account of their funding decisions to their respective political constituencies, err on the side of caution and control for those variables which can be measured. And for the time being, the humanities live off a dwindling institutional memory of better days.

So we need to learn how to argue, Paxson says, 'there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.' No doubt she is right. We do need to learn to argue for the tangible benefits of humanistic study. Obviously we, especially those of us in the humanities, have forgotten how to make such an argument.

The 'economic' character of Parson's are problematic. Their weakness may be seen in how they haphazardly circle around the point. Here's a sampling:
'[I]t is evident that many of the men and women who were exposed to that curriculum went on to positions of genuine leadership in the public and private sectors.'
'[W]e do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.'
'We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.'
The first argument appeals to anecdotal evidence, to contingent circumstances, not necessary conditions. The second and third argument brings in epistemic considerations about the inability of our metrics to predict the shape of the future. Most notable, these aren't peculiarly economic arguments. All three appeal to a rough and ready practicality. Well aware of the reasons offered for why the humanity ought not to be funded, Paxson skirts around the question why we ought to fund them.

Let me take a stab at answering the question. The strongest argument to be made for increasing funding to the humanities is that they, like so many of the other things we value in our lives, have no obvious, measurable, practical purpose. As paradoxical as this may seem, it gets at something essential to being human. The immediate payout from reading a good novel is almost non-existent. More likely, you spent money in order to purchase the novel. The same goes for conversations in coffee shops, reading the newspaper, or watching the news. The list goes on. We do these things because we want to, because, for whatever reason, we enjoy doing them, not because doing so has an obvious dollar value attached to them.

The idea of an entire human life ought to be subject to market discipline revolts even the most hard-nosed of capitalists. (Hence they spend extravagantly on the so-called superfluous aspects of their own lives.) For that reason, and that reason alone, the humanities needs a humanistic defense grounded in what it means to be human, not an economic one pegged to balance sheets and bottom lines. The proof is near and dear to every single one of us. The latter concerns cannot be ignored, of course, but they have their particular place in well-lived human life, rather than the other way around.

Where do you look for the basic inspiration behind such a reordering of priorities? Usually in religious texts, among other places. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world, and the creation of human being's in God's image. No reason is offered for why God created the world. The only thing the reader can make out is that God did. The consequence is that human life, existence itself, is best understood as the product of a supremely pointless divine act. Not to despair, though. Things don't end badly for the human race. The text of Genesis finds a reflection of God's supremely pointless act in the human being, a creature created in the image of its Creator.

The creation of humanity in God's image is one of those catch-phrases, like other ones insisting every human being is possesses an intrinsic dignity invested with certain rights merely by virtue of being human,which illuminate the rest of the world. We reason from them towards some conclusion, not towards them from other premises. Like so much of human life that cannot be rationalized on the strict terms of the hard sciences, things are because they are--or, more precisely, because we want them to be.

The image of the humanities as a beleaguered bastion of light holding out against an assault of bankers and bean-counters won't pass a smell test. The problems facing studies in the humanities are much bigger than mere institutional arrangements the immediate problems of funding allocation. Fiddling while the humanities slowly burn to the ground is something we have collectively determined to do, including persons claiming to work in the humanities. Stanely Fish comes immediately to mind. The malaise of a modern education is subtle and pervasive; it goes much deeper than individual figures, deep down into our basic assumptions about the way things are.

The demise of the humanities follows upon our collective failure to see human life as anything more than an individual can make of it. We live in communities, of course, but we have forgotten how to think about life as if it is lived in the community of others. So we fiddle while Rome burns, and pretend not to understand those things each of us individually desire for ourselves--a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table, the company of family and friends, and a modicum of freedom explore this short life's possibilities--aren't also collectively desirable.

In the end, the demise of the humanities isn't merely about a small number of academic disciplines. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Interfaith Identity Crisis

About a week ago, the Washington Post argued the nature of interfaith endeavours has shifted with demographics. A more diverse population means interaction between religious groups is no longer restricted to the clergy. In fact, a typical practitioner can now be expected to have some sort of contact with persons of different faiths.

Children who grow up and go to college or university today have very different experiences than their parents. Interfaith used to be something people did. Now it is something people live daily. Though there now exist twice as many interfaith groups in the United States than a decade ago, making the generational transition has been difficult for many. Old assumptions are being challenged, and questions of new priorities must be raised.

In a Huffington Post article, Rev. Donald Heckman, Executive Director of Religions for Peace USA, suggests the interfaith movement must rebrand itself. The term means too many things to too many people to convey anything definite to the wider public. In response to a growing number of persons who do not identify with any particular religious tradition, he says,
'I think we may need to cede the term "interfaith" to the small but growing number of people who see faith, religion and spirituality as boundary-less enterprises of exploration and who allow for multiple affiliations. And the more narrow technical term "interreligious" needs to be co-opted to cover the broad arc of things that are multi-, inter- and intra- for -faith, -religious and - spiritual.'
But is problem really just about branding? If it's about religion, doesn't it go a whole lot deeper than the question of what a person calls themselves?

Heckman is asking the right questions. The way he is asking them, however, leaves something to be desired. The deepest motivation of the interfaith movement has always been to bring people together. And that makes the wisdom of more carefully parsing the names we apply to ourselves doubtful.

The problems the interfaith movement presently faces are perennial problems, which have taken on new forms in a new context. Seen in that light, answers to questions about how to move forward should become more obvious.

The basic problem has always been how one engages persons of other faiths while remaining true to one's own faith. How can I both be a Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, etc. and engage constructively with persons of other faiths?

There seems an assumption, especially in certain Evangelical Christian communities, the logic of religious identity is ironclad: one can be either this or that, but not both. And the only reason to talk to members of other faiths is to convert them.

Rather than rebranding, the interfaith movement should be retooling. Since more and more people are living the interfaith movement on a daily basis, what is needed more than ever is to equip and teach people to find inspiration for interfaith engagement within their particular religious traditions.

I don't mean glossy presentations of the things religions share in common, though that must be a part of it. I mean encouraging Christians to think on what it means to see everyone as being created in the image of God, Muslims what it means to be Allah's representatives on earth, Hindus as jivas, and so on.

Our religious traditions, without exception, classically wrestled with the dignity and misery of being human. They set out to achieve the impossible goal of reconciling the entire human race to each other. They also cautioned against presuming too much about one's own abilities to accomplish that goal. The labels we gave ourselves, in this picture, matter a whole lot less than actual flesh and blood.

The interfaith movement needs to see itself not as a solution to a problem everyone else has. If that were the case, then rebranding is all that's needed. The interfaith movement needs rather to see itself as taking part in the very thing people have been working at for many millenia. Only then will it catch up to the truth that people are living interfaith lives every single day.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Isaiah as Case-History: Looking for an Ideal King

The modern distinction between the sacred and the secular, private and public, religious and political looms so large against our mental backdrop we are unlikely to see the old gods standing right in front of us. This is probably the same reason why contemporary readers fail to appreciate the Book of Isaiah is through and through a political document concerned to describe what authority is and how it ought to be exercised. The modern distinction between the sacred and the secular was originally formalized as a distinction between clerical (spiritual) and civil (political) authorities during the medieval period. Only much later, within the last century, when clerical authorities ceased to pose a significant counterbalance to civil authorities, did the distinction come to mean the difference between outlooks or perspectives on the world. The shift in meaning, from institutional affiliations to perspectives on things, prevents us from seeing the old gods still walking among us--in very human forms.

For the persons responsible for the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, the exercise of authority over a community was an intrinsically divine act. The Egyptian pharaohs claimed to be divine; and the Assyrian and Babylonian kings, nearly so. The idea that kings were invested with divine authority has also had a long life in the West. The early modern European political doctrine of the divine right of kings, for example, assumed the king was a god on earth. Louis XIV famously remarked, 'L'etat et moi', or 'I am the state', i.e. the only sovereign authority on earth. Thomas Hobbes called the king this 'moral god' subject only to the 'immortal God' in heaven above. The constitutional arrangement guaranteeing Queen Elizabeth II an integral place in political order of the former British Empire also hearkens back to this equation, or near equation, of the ruler's will with God's will. And even where monarchs cease to exist, like in the United States, the old god-questions have never ceased to exercise legal theorists. The only thing that has changed is that we like to tell ourselves the exercise of political sovereignty and the right to make law for a community is no longer a god-like act.

I read the Book of Isaiah as a reflection on the limits of human exercise of authority; and how, more specifically, one ought to exercise authority given the nature of human limitations. The prophecy of the boy-child Immanuel, 'God with us', in Chapter 7 does not express the airy-fairy sentiment of blissful communion with the other-worldly presence of God. The opening chapter, as I pointed out earlier, introduces the theme of rulers who have abused the people: 'Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes, and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.' (1.21-3) In the verses immediately following, the intention or 'thesis' of the book is laid out: 'I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning. Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”' (1.26) The idea that the gods were with us was not regarded an exceptional circumstance. The gods were all around us, telling us where to go, what to do, and what not to do. The prophecy of Immanuel fits into the narrative arc of the Book of Isaiah as the promise of the establishment of just authority over the people.

Recall that the charge against the rulers and the Lord's promise follow upon the Lord's invitation: '“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.' (1.18) The invitation to settle the matter recurs in the Ahaz and Hezekiah narratives. Through the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord instructs Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Ahaz refuses, saying, 'I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.' (7.12) The model of a righteous king, following the steps of David, the model of Israelite kinship, Hezekiah is much bolder in his dealings with the Lord. Hezekiah sends men to Isaiah for a word from the Lord (37.1-3); while Isaiah had to seek Ahaz out (7.3). 

Hezekiah later falls ill and is told 'Put your house in order, because you are going to die'; but he implores the Lord, because he did 'what is good in your eyes', to spare his life (38.3). Hezekiah even demands the sign from the Lord for which Ahaz declined to ask. (38.22) For his boldness, the Lord even grants Hezekiah fifteen more years of life. At first blush, the pious submissive response of Ahaz appears the correct one. But in the context of the whole book, it becomes clear the Lord wants partners, not subjects or slaves. This is same sentiment, incidentally, expressed at the climax of the Book of Job: 'Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' (Job 40.6-7)

The relative brevity of the Ahaz narrative and length of the Hezekiah narrative indicates the author of Isaiah uses the former as a foil for the latter. Hezekiah matches up better to the ideal of the righteous Davidic king. But that, of course, is not the end of the story. The Hezekiah narrative ends on a ambivalent note with Hezekiah eagerly displaying  the wealth of Israel to Babylonian envoys. The king is then told by the prophet his lack of restraint means the people and wealth of Israel will be taken into exile in Babylon. (39.6-7) The conclusion to the Hezekiah narrative is decidedly ambiguous: '“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.”' (39.8)

I am not sure the text intends readers to pass judgment on Hezekiah, who, at face-value, says to future generations, 'I got mine; get your own.' The text does not seem to have any personal beef with Hezekiah. The text only underscores the very human concerns Hezekiah shares with the rest of us and pushes the reader's attention once more into the future. The end of Chapter 39 brings to an end First Isaiah (Chs 1-39). The message of Second Isaiah (40-55) and Third Isaiah (56-66) shifts with a change of temporal position. The book no longer looks forward. Now it reflects, from a post-exilic perspective, upon what has transpired.

The Song of the Suffering Servant in Chapter 53 is perhaps the best illustration of this fundamental reorientation. The whole of Israel reflects on this enigmatic figure, who 'was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain' (53.3); who 'was pierced for our transgressions,  he was crushed for our iniquities' (53.5); and who was 'was assigned a grave with the wicked,  and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.' (53.9) The life of the Suffering Servant is made an offering for the sins of Israel. These are the same sins, notably, the Lord brought against the rulers of his people in Chapter 1: the injustice perpetrated by grasping rulers against the people.

Unlike the one-dimensional Ahaz and the two-dimensional Hezekiah, the Suffering Servant is a profoundly paradoxical figure. Because he was crushed, he will be raised up. Because he was cast out, he will be exalted. He bore our iniquities, and we benefit as a consequence. The attribute of paradox is inescapable, even if readers are not willing to go all the way with the Gospel writers and identify the Suffering Servant with the Crucified Christ. In the movement of the Book of Isaiah, the Suffering Servant establishes a pattern for ideal kingship: the Lord wants partners, not subjects or slaves, which means that human beings are not lord their authority over others to their own advantage, but to serve each other like the Suffering Servant served an undeserving people. 

In the words of a 1st century rabbi famously summarizing the Mosaic Law, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”' (Matt. 22.37-40)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Isaiah as Case-History: Ahaz and Hezekiah

I have already made the claim the Book of Isaiah ought to be read as a case-history, which interprets an existing contractual relationship between the Lord and his people, Israel. The formal terms of the contract, or covenant, are laid out in the Torah, the Books of Moses, especially in its most condensed form, the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20, Deut. 5). The history books, also called the Minor Prophets (Joshua, Judges, as well as the two books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, etc.), in and through a reflection on Israel's history, document how the terms of the divine-human contract are applied in practice.

To illustrate what I mean, a classical allusion to the Platonic dialogues may help. In the Timaeus, the companions of Socrates beg him to narrate the abstraction description of an ideal polis (i.e. community)--presumably the one described in the Republic. The request is fulfilled in the Critias, where Socrates tells an ancient tale about the decline and fall of the city of Atlantis. Now, the Atlantis myth is a useful fiction; its narrative allows Plato to put flesh on the bones of theoretical formulation. The intention of the Minor Prophets is the same as the Critias, with one especially significant exception. Instead of using purely fictional stories to describe how the ideal community would function, the Minor Prophets interpret the collective memory of actual events in Israel's history. Of course, the Minor Prophets may not live up to present standards of critical historical study; but there is nothing in the text to suggest its authors did not think themselves interpreting actual events. Plato's attitude towards the Atlantis myth, by contrast, is much more ambivalent.

The Book of Isaiah reflects the same concern of the Minor Prophets to interpret the history of Israel; but to a people living after the Babylonian Exile. The essential historical character of the prophetic book may be seen especially through its historical narratives Chapter 7 narrates events that occur before the Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed by Assyria. There the book laments the division of Israel into two kingdoms after the death of David's son Solomon, a Northern Kingdom, or (the Ten Tribes of) Israel, and a Southern Kingdom, or (the tribe of) Judah (along with portions of Simeon and Benjamin; and also Levi). The occasion for the Ahaz narrative is an alliance between the people of Israel and the King of Aram against Judah. The Prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz, king of Judah, and tells him that the Lord has arranged matters so that Assyria will deal with the threat to Judah--'the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste' (7.16). Both the Northern Kingdom and Aram are swept away by the Assyrians, in due course, but the Southern Kingdom remains.

The latter story occurs during the reign of King Hezekiah over the Southern Kingdom, which is narrated in Chapters 36-9. The Assyrians have duly swept the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the people of Aram from the field, and stand poised to attack Judah. The Prophet Isaiah again comes to speak with the king, this time Hezekiah, about the promise made earlier to King Ahaz, which stated in rather colourful terms, 'the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and private parts, and to cut off your beard also' (7.20). Hezekiah is warned by the Assyrian king Sennacherib against making an alliance with Egypt for the protection of Judea (36.6; which, in retrospect, appears to have been an astute judgment, since the Egyptian were notoriously bad at projecting military force across the Nile and into the land we now know as Jordan and Palestine). Caught between the Assyrian rock and the hard place of Egyptian powerlessness, the Prophet Isaiah informs the king the Lord himself will defeat the Sennacherib's army. In due course, the army is struck down by a strange pestilence (37.36).

The final form of the Book of Isaiah shows a highly degree of self-conscious reflection on the place of Israel--or Judah, now that the Northern Kingdom of Israel is no more--among the nations. It's authors are aware the succession of great empires in Mesopotamia. Significantly, the Hezekiah narratives conclude with a story about Hezekiah happily displaying the wealth of Judah to none other than envoys from Babylonia. Where the Ahaz narrative looks backward to the division of Israel and forward to the onslaught of Assyria, the Hezekiah narratives provide an account of the Assyrian attack, and then looks ahead to the Babylonian Exile. With the advantage of hindsight, the author of Isaiah is well aware Babylonia replaces Assyria as the preeminent imperial power in the region.

So the Book of Isaiah looks backward into order to make sense of the lives of the people of Israel in a very different set of circumstances. The Ahaz and Hezekiah narratives are 'daisy-chained' together with a clear indication that they are meant to be read in sequence. The message of Isaiah won't be found in any narrative or passage of the book; but must be found running through them.

To what end is the book written, then? The contractual relationship the Lord forms with the people of Israel is essentially about the delegation of rights and responsibilities to the different parties involved. In other words, it is about the proper exercise of authority in Israel and over Israel. The cases of Ahaz and Hezekiah must be plotted along a narrative arc that begins with the prophecy of Immanuel (Ch. 7.13-7), immediately prior to the prophecy against the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Aram, and ends with the prophecy of the Suffering Servant (Ch. 53). Each of these figures along the narrative arc contribute to a larger discussion about what form authority over Israel should take in Israel. I turn next to consider the Ahaz and Hezekiah narratives in this broader context.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Review of Arvind Sharma's Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Here is a question worth pondering. Has a biographer really done his subject justice when God appears in a life’s story as an actual actor, and not just as a literary device, inspirational thought, or private conceit?  At stake in the question’s answer is truth. Not THE TRUTH, mind you. Not what truth is; but much more importantly how truth is told.  Has a biographer told the truth of his subject if the divine majesty is allowed to skulk between every line of every page?

The truth is, or ought to be, it seems, much more mundane.  In truth’s unvarnished form, readers confront the cold, hard stuff of the real world. Right?

The question’s answer cannot be so simple, however, when a biographer sets out to write a spiritual biography.  The Yale University Press has just published Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (2013) by Arvind Sharma of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. With the opening lines, Sharma warns, ‘History is more than the biography of those who make it’, and immediately counters, ‘Nevertheless, some people leave their mark on history in such an elusive way that historiography perpetually fails to capture it.’

Gandhi was such a person, Sharma suggests, along with Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha, and a small number of others. Most biographies on Gandhi are written about Mohandas Gandhi. They refer to Mohandas with the honorific Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’, but are concerned with events and people, politics and social processes. A spiritual biography of the man takes Mahatma Gandhi as its subject, and looks what it means to be a mahatma.

Sharma’s credentials certainly qualify him to write such a book. The Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Sharma uses his specialization in Hinduism as a bridge to much more general topics, including religion and feminism and religion and human rights. He is the author of One Religion Too Many: The Religiously Comparative Reflections of a Comparatively Religious Hindu (2011). The book is Sharma’s spiritual autobiography, a chalk full of wry observations about growing up a Hindu and encountering other religious traditions along life’s way. After the Gandhian fashion of marrying faith to social activism, Sharma has also convened two international conferences looking at religion and human rights: World’s Religion after September 11 in 2006 and the Second Global Conference on World’s Religion after September 11 in 2011. A third and final conference is now in the works for the second half of 2016.

Every one of Gandhi’s biographers must confront the question about the source of his power to inspire. The ends of spiritual biography, Sharma’s argument runs, are much more appropriate to Gandhi’s fundamental motivations than are other sorts of biography. It goes to the heart of the matter, so to speak, to the place where word intersects with deed. ‘Gandhi’s claim was made upon our conscience; he demonstrated that spirituality is to be found at the core of our humanity.’

Sharma’s discussion is lively. At points, even if a little dialectical and didactic, the prose dances off the page into the reader’s imagination. Spiritual biographers risk falling into hagiography, but Sharma demythologizes Gandhi in order to preserve his saintliness. Gandhi demythologized himself, Sharma points out, by attributing his larger-than-life accomplishments to God. If he was a saint, his saintliness was in part due to his willingness to own the flaws of his character. Sharma examines a number of them in the course of the book.

Which God did Gandhi serve precisely? Good Aristotelians the lot of us, we may argue over the specific nature and attributes of the divine majesty—or whether it makes sense to speak of God existing or as existent. Whether, in our intensely analytic moments, we master our language or it masters us remains to be seen. We also stand to miss the point, was the point I took away from the Sharma’s book. Gandhi died with three bullets in his chest and the name Rama on his lips. He identified Rama with Truth, wherever it may be found, but especially through introspection and selfless service.

God as Rama as Truth could never be a mere propositional statement. The reality of God must be lived in order to be known. The insistence on identifying word and deed, Sharma points out, led Gandhi to his death. He was assassinated because he insisted India fulfill promises of a third payment to Pakistan because India had given its word. The fact the two countries were then at war could not change his mind. Gandhi took it upon himself to see the promise fulfilled; the name Rama on his lips, his final gesture was one of forgiveness to his executioner.

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography divides neatly in half. The first half treats significant episodes in Gandhi’s life. The second looks at significant themes in his thought. The book does not propose to be an exhaustive study, though it most certainly qualifies as an illuminating and instructive one. The author may be forgiven, therefore, if readers find themselves wondering how Gandhi got from a point A to a point B, or what motivated him to make the move. The scarcity of this sort of information is easily compensated by the depth of Sharma’s treatment of Gandhi’s psyche: his thoughts on sex and celibacy, British imperialism, his own spiritual heritage, and the caste system are just a few of the topics he covers.

The book draws me to one conclusion: other modes of biographical writing aside, a spiritual biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi cannot fail to testify to God. Absent the divine majesty, Gandhi’s intentions no purpose, his actions had no end, his thoughts and no object. Absent God there could be no Mahatma.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Updated)

Let's take a break from the blog series on Isaiah and talk about Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013). Since an interview on Fox News with a host who was not able to get past the idea that a Muslim wrote writing on Christianity, Aslan's book has sold briskly on Amazon. Not that it was doing poorly before; only now it is at the top of the charts.

On my shelf is sitting his No god by God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2006), from which I developed a healthy respect for Aslan's acumen. It seems appropriate that a Muslim should write a book on Jesus, since Islam claims Christ as a prophet who brings the Gospel, like Moses brought the Torah, David the Psalms, and Muhammad the Qur'an, affirms his virgin birth, and proclaims his return on the Last Day. Only the orthodox Christian formulation about the two natures, divine and human, in one person is absent from in the Islamic account. It betrays the ignorance of the Fox News host, and everyone else who thinks what Aslan wrote is fundamentally objectionable, to suggest Aslan has absolutely no business writing on Jesus. Unlike persons, religions are not discrete entities; they overlap, interweave, and mix in the heads of persons down through the course of human history.

But Aslan has taken a lot of heat from certain quarters for his newest book. Understandably, though regrettably, conservative Christian quarters in the main. The most intelligent criticism I have read so far comes from First Things blogger Matthew Franck, who points out 'Reza Aslan Misrepresents His Scholarly Credentials'. I say 'intelligent' because the article is more than mere opinion. The author did a little bit of digging around to develop the piece. But the argument may not be entirely fair. Franck places more value on form rather than content, on the external things, which should only be regarded as of secondary importance. He argues Aslam misrepresents his scholarly credentials, and therefore we should doubt his contribution to the broader conversation is the implied suggestion. But scholar who spends his life reading texts about religious beliefs, writings books on religious topics, ought to qualify as a scholar of religion, in my estimation, regardless what his current academic title is or what his dissertation is on. Franck disagrees. You can read his piece for yourself and form your own opinion.

The obvious point to be made, apparent in the title of book, is that Aslan's Jesus is not the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel are fairly careful to distinguish the sort of messiah Jesus was supposed to be from other Jewish claimants to messiahship around the same time. Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. The kingdom of God is within you. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and God what is God. And so on and so forth. Short little catchphrases may be found throughout the Gospels, all of which relativize the importance of transient worldly success. (It is transient, after all.) The message of the Gospels is subversive in a bend-over-and-take-it-on-the-backside kind of way. Jesus ends up going to die on the cross--willingly.

The inch-deep, mile-wide cultural commentary ought there misunderstands that Aslan's basic hermeneutic for reading the Gospels does not come from Islam, but from 19th century European seminaries. Very intelligent theologians, for reasons peculiar to the place and time, decided the Gospels' portraits of Jesus were not historically reliable. They drew a fundamental distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history. Believers could believe whatever they wanted. On the other hand, scholars had to restrain themselves from saying anything beyond the surface of human history. This scholarly attitude lives on in such organizations as The Jesus Seminar.

Aslan's Jesus is a rebel of sorts seeking to effect some worldly change. So Aslan rejects the final implications of the Gospel portrait. As he says in the opening pages of his book, 'If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.' Divide faith from history, like Aslan does, and the willingness of the historical Jesus to go to death in order to effect a victory, not over mere human powers, but over sin, death, and the denizens of hell, no longer makes much sense.

There is nothing new in Aslan's arguments, and certainly nothing worth loosing our heads over--nor compromising our resolve to love our neighbours as ourselves, even and especially when they may disagree with us. There is nothing especially offensive in his presentation either. It is entirely in line with a Christian confession of belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God that a non-believer doesn't believe the same. Whether Aslan has mined the Gospel for all the viable 'historical material' that can be had from them--well, that is another question.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Book of Isaiah as Case History

Here I want to say something about how I will read the Book of Isaiah in the posts that follow. My strategy is to read the text as if it offered an interpretation of the case history of the contractual relationship between the Lord and his people Israel. As I have already shown, the first chapter of Isaiah sets the scene of a divine court. Calling heaven and earth to witness, the Lord sits in a seat of judgment. The curious thing, though, is that the Lord begs the people to look at the evidence and see reason. What evidence? That's what the rest of Isaiah lays out.

A prophet has traditionally been thought to be a person who goes into a trance, has a vision, and relates the content of their vision to others. The prophet is a singular person who stands about from the daily intercourse of life; they come down from a mountain to commune with God that few people ever have a chance or inclination to climb. The call of the prophet Isaiah conforms to these basic conventions. He has a vision, in which he is told to relate a message to the people.

The Book of Isaiah, however, should not be confused with the figure of the prophet. The book is not a disjointed collection of ecstatic messages received in a trance-like state. It is organized. It has a structure, through which a narrative is told. The book also shows plain evidence of being written with other books in mind. Its very first line says, 'The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.' The stories of these kings are also recorded in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. So we need to be aware, at the outset, the author of Isaiah clearly had in mind to engage with other literature.

Though mostly composed of prophetic utterances presented in poetic form, the Book of Isaiah contains two historical narratives. In chapter 7, the prophet's encounter with King Ahaz is recounted, and in chapters 37-39, his encounter with King Hezekiah is told. The fact that the figures of Ahaz, Hezekiah, and Isaiah all appear in elsewhere in the biblical literature tips us off to the purpose of the book. It interprets happenings that are known elsewhere, which means a variety of different considerations are being brought to consider the matter at hand.

The interpretation of a case-history needs a history to interpret. It also needs a legal standard with which to interpret the history. To illustrate the sort of reading of the Book of Isaiah I am suggesting, I offer the examples of two other stories narrating the encounters of a prophet and a king taken from 2 Samuel and 2 Kings.

2 Samuel 11 tells the story of how King David had Uriah the Hittite killed to hide the fact David had impregnated Uriah's wife Bathsheba, while Uriah was off fighting David's wars. This wasn't David's first course of action, which was to dream up an excuse to call Uriah back from the front line, and have him spend the night with his wife. But out of a sense of duty, presumably to his king and his brother's in arms, Uriah had refused the pleasures of the marriage bed, and slept instead among David's servants, which eliminated all the easy solutions to the king's problems. In chapter 12, we read that the prophet Nathan, speaking in the Lord's stead, enumerated David's sins and pronounced judgment upon him. The bastard child had to die.

On very similar terms, I Kings 21 tells the story of how King Ahab had Naboth killed after Naboth had refused to sell the king his birthright, a vineyard. The king had sulked for while when he had first been rebuffed, but then was persuaded to bring up brought false charges against Naboth, which effectively dispossessed him both of his vineyard and his life, by the encouragement of his pagan wife Jezebel. The prophet Elisha was sent to deliver the Lord's condemnation. Total disaster was averted when Ahab showed signs of repentance. The text seems to suggest Ahab's repentance had a measure of sincerity, though it easily allows this can be attributed to a deep-seated insecurity.

Neither of these stories spell things out in so many words, but both leave readers with every reason to think that their authors told their stories because they were concerned to interpret Torah, especially the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20, Deut .5). David coveted his neighbour's wife, committed adultery, and finally murder, while Ahab coveted his neighbour's vineyard, bore false witness in open court, committed murder, all to facilitate a theft. The crimes match up too well with specific tenets of the Ten Commandments to be a coincidence, which strongly suggests history books like I and II Samuel and I and II Kings can be read as commentary upon the Torah. Offenses against one's neighbour are offenses against the Lord; and, more often than not, offenses against the Lord are also offenses against one's neighbour. As much as they tell the story of people of Israel, they interpret what it means to be Israel.

Something very similar, I propose, is going on with the stories of Isaiah and Ahaz and Isaiah and Hezekiah. The story of Ahaz is also told in 2 Kings 16 and the story of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18-20. The prophet Isaiah makes an appearance in 2 Kings 19, where one of his prophecies about the Assyrian king Sennacherib's fall from power is recorded. As they are narrated in the Book of Isaiah, however, the stories of Ahaz and Hezekiah show considerable amount tailoring to their textual setting. They are stories told for a specific purpose, but they are not merely morality tales. (Neither are the stories of David and Bathsheba or Ahab and Naboth's vineyard, for that matter, though it is understandably easy to read them as such.) They take us beyond the mere letter of the law, and force reader's to consider the intention in which the law was given, and the spirit in which it is observed.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Call of a Prophet

At the risk of labouring the point, let me begin by saying prophecy is not prediction. In the context of a discussion of the call, or commission, of the prophet, however, the point seem especially pertinent to reiterate. It's a sad contemporary reality that sincere persons scour the pages of sacred texts looking for factual information about what will happen when, where, and how. It's sad because the very same texts will very often warn against the sheer presumptuousness, not to mention impiety, of searching for an interpretive key that unlocks the meaning of human life, both now and hereafter. The Book of Isaiah is no exception.

The call of the prophet Isaiah recorded in chapter 6 grants us insight into the nature of prophecy. We read that Isaiah was given a glimpse of the Lord enthroned on high (6.1). This seems to have come as something of a surprise, though Isaiah understood exactly what he had saw, and seems to have been aware of potential consequences. The text relates the words of the prophet in his own voice: '“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”' (6.5) The imagery makes plain that Lord's appearance is enough to break even the stalwart of sinners down into a quailing ball of tears.The impasse is solved when an angel touches the top of the prophet's mouth with a burning coal taken from atop the altar of the Lord. The prophet is made acceptable to be in the Lord's presence.

The scene in which the call of the prophet takes place appears quite exotic. We read things like: '[T]he Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple' (6.1); or 'seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.' (6.2) While the objective description does not comport well with our contemporary categories, in another more subjective sense the scene is more explicable. The prophet knows himself to be unworthy of the high call he receives--something, I believe, most people have some experience of. A second thing to note is that the call of the prophet repeats the movement of the first chapter (1.18-20). The Lord engages his people--or, in this case, the prophet, and the people through the prophet. Amidst the troubling language of judgment and condemnation, readers need to keep in mind the action of the text does not center on the people's failure to measure up, but on the Lord's request to 'Come now, let us settle the matter...' (1.18).

The message the prophet Isaiah is charged with delivering reads as follows:
He said, “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”

And he answered:

“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
(6.8-12) 
Read on its own, the passage seems unduly harsh. Why would the Lord want to deliberately obfuscate his people until such a time that no one remained in the land? A more careful reading shows that this is more likely a case of saying one thing and meaning another. The prophet, after all, is told to tell the people 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding...', which would seem to betray a small hope that at least some of those who hear would also understand and take the message to heart--and not merely at face value. As a part of the longer development of the book as well, we already know that the prophet's message is not delivered to people entirely innocent. We already know that the princes and leaders of the people have abused their authority (1.23). And if, as I claimed in a previous post, the evil that befalls people is something they have brought on themselves, 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding...' takes on a more ironic meaning.

What still might bother readers is that the Lord will 'send everyone far away'. Surely not everyone is guilty--at least, not to the same extent? This question I want to take up later in connection to the narrative trajectory of Isaiah. For the time being, it is important to note that this is not the only calling of a prophet in the text, which suggests that the above message ought to be read in anticipation of another message. Chapter 6 begins a narrative cycle that terminates in Chapter 39. A second call goes out in Chapter 40, which opens the second part of Isaiah. The  dismal message of the first call should be read as anticipating the more comforting message of the second call. I will turn to consider it in due course.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Isaiah is About

Prophecy is not prediction. Readers of the Book of Isaiah have for a long time laboured under the assumption that it is. The sort of reading habits pastors and priests have instilled in parishioners haven't helped the situation much either. The daily regimen of reading discrete passages discourages readers from asking questions about how the text hangs together, or why it doesn't hold together in the way we expect it to. There any number of things devout believers are convinced the books of the Bible say which they never actually get to saying. These are short snippets, statements, axioms, and the like, taken out of context and read back into the text. When it says in chapter 53.5, 'he was pierced for our transgressions', isn't it obvious to everyone that what is being referred to is the Roman spear point thrust into Jesus' side as he hung on the cross? To later readers, perhaps, but not to the prophet Isaiah, nor the persons responsible for compiling the volume that bears his name.

More important here is the content of the vision recorded in the first chapter of Isaiah. The Lord is bringing a series of charges against the people. This in itself is interesting. Why bother charge the people? Why doesn't God provide a summary condemnation and punishment and be done with it? 'I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.' (1.2) 'Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great'. (1.4) The dialectic of Isaiah that readers must master, if they are to understand the direction of its argument, is found in the idea that the judgment of the Lord is something the people, by their own actions, bring upon themselves. The logic of the text is not a strict logical opposition, i.e. if the people do good, God blesses them, and if they do wrong, God punishes them. Isaiah proposes no such 'bait and switch' tactic. The logic of the text is dialectical: if the people do good, God blesses them, and if they do wrong, they bring punishment on themselves. The question about what God might do is left open-ended.

The opening chapter of Isaiah is quite remarkable. The Lord is bringing a lawsuit against his people, and the heavens and the earth are called to bear witness. (1.2) The charge is twofold. Neither is the people's worship sincere: 'Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.' (1.13); nor is their treatment of others just: 'Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.' (1.17) Without much difficulty, the Mosaic Law, better known as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deut. 5), can be seen shaping the form of the text. Both the so-called First Table, dealing with the proper worship of God, and the so-called Second Table, treating human relations, are represented. There is every reason, however, not to understand these as discrete charges, but to see them as implying each other. Because the people have not worshiped properly, they do not defend the fatherless and the widow; and because they have not defended the fatherless and the widow, they do not worship properly.

The best evidence for reading the two charges alongside each other is found in verses 18-20, whose fundamental importance requires that it be quoted in full.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
 says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
 they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
 they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
 you will eat the good things of the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
 you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The Lord enters into negotiations with his people. The King James Version translates the first couple of lines much more forcefully: 'Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.' The subject of the negotiations will to Israel's rebellion against her heavenly king--'the Lord, the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel'. (1.24) The points of contention: 'Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.' (1.23) Perhaps they will settle outside of the heavenly court--we will have to read the rest of Isaiah to find out.

The Book of Isaiah reads like a case history, which is immediately obscured if it is read as predicting something in the future. At least, that is the reading I will be presenting. It details the Lord's dealings with his people in the light of his covenant, or contract, with them. The message of the prophet Isaiah is no simple moral axiom, to be applied everywhere irrespective of changing situations. It is a message which dignifies its hearers, treats them as equals, puts the facts of the matter before them, and asks them to consider the evidence themselves. The message is no abstract metaphysical speculation; it is practical, even if not necessarily pragmatic. What it says is that there are no actions without consequences. When you mistreat your fellow human beings, don't expect everything to go well for you. At the outset of the book, the message does not even seem to be directed at individuals either--certainly not powerless individuals. It is addressed that those who hold the reigns of power, who control the means of production (to borrow the Marxist turn of phrase), who want nothing, and in whose power is the ability to address the wants of others.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Reading Isaiah

I have in mind to pick away at a short writing project over the next month of so; one which reads the Book of Isaiah. Readers of sacred texts like the Bible, when they are honest with themselves, will admit a personal preference for certain portions of the text over others. The consequence of personal preference will be to read the text as a whole in the light of one or a number of its parts. The Book of Isaiah has been just such a part through which I have read the whole of the Bible. Therein I find the creation narratives, the law given to Moses, the minor prophets (or the history books), and the future of the people of Israel, uniting past, present, and future, all have a reflection in mirror of Isaiah. I also find that early Christian authors of the Gospels all look to Isaiah as an intellectual precedent for the claims they made about the man Jesus Christ. The final chapter of Isaiah also anticipates the Book of Revelation with dual image of an exultant 'new heavens and a new earth' and a startling 'worm that never dies'.

Now, having located these points of contact within the Book of Isaiah with the rest of the biblical canon, I see an interpretive justification for reading the rest of the canon in the light of its peculiar concerns and preoccupations. The small amount of academic work I have done on Isaiah, however, leads me to conclude it has been read very selectively over the centuries, and especially in the last couple of centuries. So, to start off my exploration of text, I want to describe, in very general terms the sorts of concerns readers have traditionally brought to the text. The first I will call the 'redemptive-historical', or Christian, reading; the second, the 'critical-historical', or secular, reading. Bear in mind, as I distinguish these readings from each other, Isaiah is a Hebrew-Jewish text. It tells the story of the pre-exilic prophet Isaiah, recounting the contents of his teachings and visions, from a post-exilic perspective. One can more or less safely assume that some of the content from chapters 1-39 predates the Babylonian Exile and that the rest of the material, as well as the final ordering given to all the material, comes much later. The text was written with neither Christian nor secular concerns in mind, as both of these arise much later still. The various perspectives of different authors and readers need to be kept in mind. Though it may be beyond our capability to determine what all these are exactly, this is not to say the many possible perspective from which the text can be read can be ignored.

The sort of things a person looks for when reading the book of Isaiah, it will turn out, depends a lot on what that person understands by the term 'prophecy'. The book begins by saying, 'The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.' (1:1) From this we may gather Isaiah is a prophet; he has visions of God, which are given him by God. Visions of what exactly?

The redemptive-historical (Christian) reading is one that tended to fixate on particular passages that are easily read as predictions of the life of Jesus Christ. The four Gospels set the standard for this sort of reading. In 7.14, we read the child Immanuel will be born of a virgin (on a variant Greek reading of the Hebrew text), which the Gospel of Luke picks up on in 1.34. The messiah will have a Galilean ministry, as 9.1 suggests, which is quoted directly in the Gospel of Matthew 4:15-6. The figure of Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 also reappears in the Gospels and the Apostle Paul's Epistles. The list continues at great length, as can be seen here. Later texts give every reason, including direct quotations, to think their authors were intimately familiar with Isaiah's prophecies. Christian readers down through the centuries have read Isaiah as proof positive that Jesus is the Christ. Even the 17th century British thinker John Locke, who isn't otherwise thought of as a very religious thinker, still saw the earlier predictions of later events as evidence of the trustworthiness of biblical texts.

Enter the critical-historical (secular) reading, a relative latecomer to the game of biblical interpretation, which has tended to fixate on questions about what was originally intended by a text's author--or, barring that on account of a lack of evidence, the original context in which the text was composed. Critical-historical readings of Isaiah have been inimical to redemptive-historical readings. The reason why is obvious. It is a stretch to say an earlier text proves the claims of a later text by confirming its claims. Much more plausible is the say the author of the later text used the earlier text to justify their claims. Human history isn't read forwards, after all, it is read backwards from the present moment which the reader occupies. More importantly, the more plausible option  later texts used earlier texts to justify their claims is confirmed by the Gospels themselves, which quote from the Book of Isaiah, as if to say to their original Jewish audience, 'You see, you already know what we are talking about, since you have already read the prophet Isaiah.'

These two ways of reading the Isaiah agree on a basic point: prophecy is about the prediction of the future. Gospel writers themselves well-understood that prediction was precisely what prophecy was not about. Indeed, when they connected passages in the book of Isaiah to the life of Christ, they were not predicting the future, but interpreting events that had already happened. But over the centuries, the Christian tradition did fall into the habit reading prophecy as if it were prediction; and so when European began to reject the clerical authority over the interpretation of the Bible in the 17th and 18th centuries, books like Isaiah became easy fodder for new critical-historical readings.

Prophecy of the sort found in the Book of Isaiah is best not understood as predicting anything. The most straight-forward demonstration of this point is to watch how readers who think prophecy is nothing but prediction cut the text up into smaller and smaller pieces. When that happens, the meaning of text's message rests in the smallest turn of phrase or part of speech. The text ceases to be read as a complete text, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Book of Isaiah, I want to argue, is best understood is prophecy is seen to relate to how human life is understood right now, that is, in the present moment, between the past and the future. Once you set aside the insatiable need to master the future, the meaning of Isaiah becomes much more comprehensible.

What is prophecy? The simplest rendering of the term is 'to speak for' someone. With this in mind, I'll turn to the Book of Isaiah itself in a day or two.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The External World

Among the perennial questions of Western philosophical tradition is one about the existence of the 'external' world. In its most basic form, the question asks, Do things exist apart from our thoughts about things? Is it true, in other words, that to be is also to be perceived?--to borrow a phrase from the 18th century Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley. Does the tree exist because you think about it, or does it exist prior to your thinking about it?

But the answer to the question is not as obvious as it first appears. The longer you think about the question, in fact, the more obscure the it becomes.

We have good reasons for thinking things exist apart from our thoughts about them. To begin with, we fall asleep at night and wake up to find the world much the same as we left it. We travel familiar routes to home, school, or work, navigating by means of familiar landmarks. The continued presence of objects in our physical environment provides a very strong reason to think they exist apart from our conscious perception of them.

As far as a naive faith in the external world goes, philosophers seem the worst of the bunch. They can always be found talking about Kant's view of this or Heideigger's view of that, as if Kant and Heidegger, and their views of this or that, were out there waiting to be looked at, thought about, and discussed at great length. Which, of course, they are--recorded for us in books.

We are very comfortable with the thought that an external world exists apart from our thought about that world. It helps us make sense of learning, discovery, and being in error. Something 'external' to our thinking provides a standard against which to measure the truth of our thought. Our thought runs up against it, tries to comprehend it, arrives at a provisional understanding, makes a decision as to its adequacy, and so on. We presume the existence of an external world whenever we communicate our thoughts with others. At least, those of us do who have not yet figured out how to communicate directly, one mind to another. Not only do we make use of the external world as a medium of communication, much of our communication has to do with calling others attention to consider some object found there.

Not everyone is happy with the language of an external world, nor the implied idea that the world is one thing and thought about the world another. (The aforementioned Kant is a good example.) The philosopher Daniel Dennett has coined the term 'Cartesian theatre' to capture how strange the idea of thinking about the world as external to ourselves. The most obvious reason for why the idea just doesn't measure up, of course, is that we find ourselves in the external world: our bodies. We are, in some very real sense, our bodies. As our bodies move, so we grow. As our bodies grow, so we grow. Where our eyes look, our conscious attention seems to follows--or does it lead? Dennett enjoys mocking persons who think of themselves as looking at themselves (their body) from an undefined location (their mind). The mind is not the brain, after all. The brain is something that can be seen, picked at, pulled apart, sliced into sections. The same cannot be done to the mind, per the definition of mind. But if it can't be observed and studied, it seems legitimate to wonder whether the thing exists at all.

I haven't much time for Dennett's endless refusal to say anything positive about this thing I call myself, though I find his line of questioning to be a helpful foil. Thomas Nagel has it exactly right when he says that Dennett merely redefines consciousness as an external property, ignoring the essential problem, which is the subjective first-person perspective that each of us occupies, and no one else does for us. Indeed, it's the individual's first-person perspective (which, if re-ified, is called an immaterial soul, the life of the rational animal) makes the external world a problem in the first place.

The individual first-person perspective throws a monkey wrench into any abstract formulation--whether it's Berkeley's to be is to be perceived or Dennett's critique of the 'Cartesian theatre'. Certainly the logic of these positions can be tried and tested; but logical analysis aims at universal applicability, which is precisely not a first-person perspective. If the world exists only because I perceive it, the rest of you have a real problem. Likewise, if a first-person perspective is nothing, or at least nothing worth thinking about, then we, each individually, all have a real problem.

Bishop Berkeley had an answer. To be can still be to be perceived, even if no human being is perceiving every single object in external world all the time claimed Berkeley, because the being we call God perceives everything, which allows them also to exist apart from partial human perspectives. That not a solution open to Dennett, at least not one he thinks is open to him. So he runs away from the first-person perspective; and, we might say, trips over the elephant in the room--himself.

The idea of a world external to ourselves, it seems to me, helps us all make sense of our individuality. It allows me to say your perspective on things may differ from my perspective on things by creating a buffer zone between the part of me only I have access to and the part of me the rest of the world gets to see. You are external to me. We can talk things out, but we won't necessarily come to an agreement, or even an understanding. And that is okay.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Fletcher, Historian

Richard Fletcher was a rarity among historians. A medievalist, Fletcher published books on Anglo-Saxon England and Moorish and Christian Spain prior to the actual beginnings of the Reconquista in the 11th century (which is usually dated to the 8th century). Another of his impressive scholarly accomplishments was The Barbarian Conversion (1999), which looked at Christian missions into the dark heart of Europe between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Reformation, with an eye to happenings in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Middle East, and North Africa. It is not hard to imagine Fletcher thought himself picking up where Edward Gibbon left off, only with a much less jaundiced eye towards events and persons who didn't obviously exude the material greatness and organizational power of the Antonine Dynasty.

It is my experience that history books can all be arranged on along a single axis stretching from a purely objective perspective on the historical subject matter to an investigative perspective that gives readers a glimpse of the difficulties historians encounter trying to interpret their sources. Most historians fit into the former category. They may talk a good talk about the multiplicity of perspectives from which the sources can be studied; but they rarely reflect on the limitations imposed on historians by the limited availability of materials. History textbooks assigned in undergraduate classes, as well as most survey texts, fit into this category. They tell what happened when, and why things happened the way they did. Narrative threads are woven together presenting 'the present state of the field of study'. Specialized historical studies also follow this general pattern. In their introductory chapter, the historian usually tells you what other historians have written, what new evidence they have found, and how it confirms what we have already discovered or how it should radically change how the field of study is understood.

Fletcher's Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (2002) is one of those rare histories that let's you follow a historian reading texts, trying to discern where all the pieces fall. The roughly half-century stretch of time from the establishment of Anglo-Saxon rule in 577 until the Norman Conquest in 1066 comprises the England's participation in the Dark Ages. The earlier in the period one finds oneself, the more scarce the evidence becomes. Though in the last leg of the period, from the Danish Conquest in 1016 until its conclusion, much is left to be desired.

The northern-most English province Northumbria was ruled by Earl Uthred, celebrated with the title 'the Bold'. In 1016, Uthred came to pay his respects in the court of the Danish king Canute (or Cnut) at a place called Wiheal. The location of the meeting, Fletcher indicates, is part of the mystery. We don't presently know where it is. Uthred and forty of his clients and retainers died that day. His death set into motion 'a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years'.

Bloodfeud patiently sifts through what evidence remains in an effort to discern the motivations behind the different persons involved. Sometimes all that we have to go on are single sentences carelessly dropped into The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document contemporary to the period in question. Often we are drawing imaginative inferences from what we known generally about what life was like from more general studies of comparable materials drawn from elsewhere, what sort of commonly accepted rules bloodfeuds were prosecuted under, and so on.

Fletcher's gift was to convey the difficult constrains any historian, especially those who work from such a great distance in time, must work under. The gift is rare. The problem I want to think through is why the gift is rare.

A few of reasons come immediately to mind. The first is that most people are not trained as historians. Those who do pay some small amount of attention to the human past by reading survey texts or specialized studies are more likely to assimilate the historian's conclusions than they are the historian's experience coming to those conclusions. This occurred there and then; or this happened because that happened; but not our lack of certainty on this or that point. The second is that the immense amount of materials published on any one place and time in human history is likely to shore up erroneous assumptions about just how much evidence is available. Readers don't necessarily contemplate the fact that single lines in an ancient text can generate exponential growing amount of commentary, none of which can get around the simple problem of a lack of additional evidence needed to corroborate this or that interpretation. The third is that a majority of people, if they are interested in the past at all, are more likely to be interested in the recent past. And it is precisely in the recent past, especially the very recent past, that we encounter of glut of material evidence.

Put together, these give rise to what I will call an 'empirical fetishism'. For every question, there should in principle be an answer. If there isn't an answer, we allow ourselves to hypothesize about a 'best fit' answer. Empirical fetishism means that our knowledge of the world ought to be a seamless whole. We don't like holes in our seamless whole, so we fill them. Fletcher points out that the village of Wighill has been suggested for the location of Earl Uthred's murder at Wiheal, along with a number of other candidate whose name begins with W. Wikipedia names Wighill as the location of his murder, in fact, but without any comment on the interpretive dilemmas of identifying this particular place with that particular name in that hoary tome. History it seems, like nature, also abhors a vacuum.

Let's not make fun of Wikipedia on this point. They are only doing what most everybody else does in their situation: drawing conclusions, filling in blanks. Because of the impossibility of constructing a consistent account of the whole body of our knowledge about the world and its past. empirical fetishism itself gives rise to perspectivism. Everyone has their own perspective on things. You can think about things in as many ways as you want, of course. The interpretation of the human past, even the immediate past, but especially the distant past, however, often leaves a person with nothing to have a perspective on. That sort of empirical sensitivity is why we need more historians like Richard Fletcher, as it's very easy to assume a perspective on things can replace due attention to the things themselves.