About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2014/04/18

Hortulanus Resurrectus

Every spring, nature comes to life after a long winter nap (and it took a while this year didn’t it?). Budding flowers, bright-yellow chicks, verdant fields, furry bunnies, blooming trees... This vernal exuberance just offers itself to be compared to the Easter resurrection hope. But this year gives us a marvelous opportunity to go beyond this easy cliche sermonizing. This year, Easter Sunday falls just two days before Earth Day, presenting us with an exciting opportunity to consider what the Easter Resurrection Message might mean for the universe as a whole.
    For centuries Christianity (especially western Christianity) insisted that the world was planted by God only to benefit humans. No part of nature had any purpose but to serve humans and their salvation. For generations, that has been a sad and highly unfortunate distortion of our faith tradition which eventually led to exploitation and pollution of our environment. The original divine charge to human race was to “keep and protect nature” or in different translation to “till and watch after it” like a garden (Genesis 2:15).
    Come this Easter Sunday to meet with a surprising guest, a returning, revived Gardener. Come to celebrate the resurrection hope woven into an intricate and beautiful lacework of nature, where all parts are interconnected and interdependent. Come to celebrate all parts of nature (including us humans, but not only us humans) which are together equally dear and loved by God. Come to celebrate Easter Sunday and Earth Day together.



2014/04/11

Undercover in Jerusalem

     Do you know this toy? Rubik’s Cube was a real joy of my freshman year in high school. It came out that very year. Even though this fun puzzle originated from the Eastern Block (from Hungary), at the beginning it was not easily available under a planned-economy known for its inefficiencies. But then, after a month or so, my father returned from a medical conference in Prague and brought back a sparking new cube and with it also a few sleepless nights. Soon I was competing in class and school competitions. I never made it really far, in my best form I did not solve the cube much faster than in a minute. (An info  for those who might consider one minute fast, 1982 record was 19 seconds and current record is 5.55 seconds!) Later in mathematics class we calculated the total number of positions - it is staggering 43 quintillion and more! (And about 12 times more positions are not achievable by simple rotations.) No wonder Rubik’s Cube is loved by cryptanalysts and cypherers. 
       Why do I write about it in this Friday Message? Because I write an invitation for Palm Sunday and Edward Snowden’s Rubik’s Cube will provide for us marvelous contemporary illustration of events of Palm Sunday long ago. The story of Jesus’ last visit to Jerusalem will lead us behind the curtain and will outline some new and not often recognized aspects, his use of conspirational and contra-espionage techniques. With the approaching Jewish high holidays, the Gospels faithfully capture the political and religious tensions growing ever thicker; thus on Palms Sunday we will be going with Jesus undercover in Jerusalem!
       Weather permitting, please, gather this Sunday in front of our Broadway entrance (Just left of the Chase Bank) and with palm branches we will process together to our sanctuary. You will recognize our worship leaders, they will come with Rubik’s Cubes.


2014/04/09

Divine horticulture

Here are the slides from our last Lenten Lecture this year. I am running a little busy, so they are without commentary - I plan to fill it in sometimes later. 

2014/03/31

Eco-sensitive Biblical Animism


This time we will be talking about archaic epistemology which I would call, for lack of better words, remnants of biblical animism. Animism will not be for us today a fully formed religious system; rather it will be that mode of thinking and relating to the outside world in which boundaries between divine, spiritual, human and natural (animate as well as inanimate) remain largely fluid. We will concentrate especially on how this less regimented mode of thinking can influence our understanding of the biblical text, our faith, our self-understanding and relationship to the world.
The Bible preserved only two reports of speaking animals. The biblical editorial process was driven by a developing strict monotheism which certainly led to the elimination of many other examples.
    These two instances of talking animals were not eliminated, most likely, because in these two stories the talking animals were an integral part of the narrative plot. Also both stories used talking animals (remnants of animism) in an important dogmatic (Genesis) or folkloric (Numbers) to advocate powerfully for monotheism.
    Yet the narrative itself clearly outlines constitutive aspects of a different (animistic) mentality. Animals are talking just like any other character. In the narrative this is treated as absolutely natural. Only Numbers hints at some explanation in the divine command to donkey to speak. In both cases animals are the source of special knowledge (alternative mode of understanding the divine plan) which they communicate to humans.
    Even if we interpret these talking animals as a rhetorical and dramatic tool, or as a projection of a person’s own thought into any given animal (in fact, a kind of hallucination) the fact that it is accepted without any substantial commentary, alarm or explanation can tell us that the narrators mind-set was different from our current most common post-enlightenment way of thinking.

  
     (A tangential comment about the role and image of snakes. Especially in medieval and post-medieval religion and culture snakes received a demonically sinister reputation. That was not the original intention of Genesis. The ancient meaning and symbolism of snakes was complex and far from being only negative - here I would like to refer to book by the professor of NT theology from Princeton James H. Charlesworth: The Good and Evil Serpent, 2010.)
    Many biblical animals were most likely "made silent" by dogmatic censorship of a lengthy editorial process, as I have mentioned earlier. But old underlying modes of perception and reflection of the world could not be completely eliminated. They are scattered throughout the biblical text very often unnoticed unless we know and recognize their broader epistemological context.
    Here is one example - most clearly stated in the myth from Ugarit. But a similar situation (inanimate objects or realities) communicating message appears in Psalms and in the Prophets, while still being hinted at in Paul’s letter to Romans. (It is actually associated with the name of this blog.)
    Clearly many realities of the world were perceived as able to communicate - share messages/information. Direct contradiction in the second half of the quotation from the Psalm (it is not word, it cannot be heard X yet their voice permeates the world and words go as far as limits of the world) outlines ancient recognition of substantially different mode of this communication.
    Among Old Testament scholars there has been long-standing recognition that certain stones, trees and springs in the Old Testament times enjoyed a special status. They were not only associated with mythical/legendary events and figures, but were often recognized as associated with local numina (spirits or deities). Here I am using just three examples. Each of them could easily be expanded, and a number of similar instances of special stones (or circles of stones), trees and springs can be mentioned.
    Archeology confirms the religious significance of stones while paleo-epigraphy and art shows stylized trees or decorated poles clearly linked with Asherah (compare this tree positioned above a lion with a goddess standing on a lion few slides earlier).
    Please note that in modern scholarship archeology is not used to provide support for any individual biblical text but helps with our general understanding of the religious and anthropological milieu.
Here are two quotations which can help us understand the mentality of an animistic religious system and its relationship to nature.
    I mentioned Lynn White and his epoch-defying article at the end of our last lecture. White's article is now almost 50 years old, yet it remains relevant. It is especially relevant in the church setting because churches have never really dealt with this challenge. White nicely outlines why an animistic world-view has a higher sensitivity towards nature. We can also begin to understand why the ascent of supranatural theism of Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and their rampant anthropocentrism, led to the degradation of nature into an object to be exploited. All three monotheistic religions separated deity from nature and created predominantly anthropocentric religious systems (preoccupied with religious teachings, worship and human relationships).
    White was a medievalist, not an anthropologist-ethnologist; his definition of animism is rather schematic. For that reason I cite the second quotation on our slide from the insightful anthropologist Irving Hallowell. It marvelously shows that our modern scientific inclination to categorize might not be an adequate method for the assessment of a different mentality. It might be true that every tree or every spring had their own numina, but they were not necessarily identical or even identically important or powerful.

As an illustration I used a black, palm size, pebble - it is a stone with multiple stories. 1) I remember when I picked it up in 2007 near World’s End Park in Pennsylvania on a spring Saturday trip with my family. It brings back personal memories. 2) But at the same time I know it is a pebble formed of Pennsylvania black coal - it carries the story of early 20th century mining and families who used to live there in now abandoned towns. 3) It also carries an even older history of the Carboniferous geological era hundreds of millions of years ago, when this stone was a lump of peat and fern leaves. These are just three stories of this stone. There  might be more - 4) We brought this stone with us from our previous home. It moved with us from Binghamton to NYC. 5) And now I bring it to this lecture as an illustration and it shared some of its history with us. You might say, it is I who is speaking on behalf of the inert stone and responsible for the message. I simply learned all of it and pulled all this information together, because I became curious about this stone. And purely objectively you are right. But cannot it be claimed that I became sensitive to these diverse stories and shared them with you on behalf of that stone? “Of course, stones are not alive, but some are!”
Lynn White in the mentioned article blamed western medieval Christianity for the objectification of nature which fostered its ruthless exploitation and eventually led us to our ecological crisis.
    I am convinced that this process has much deeper roots growing from anthropocentric supranatural monotheism (religious ideology which started to appear in Judaic tradition in the early Hellenistic period). This quotation from Josephus Flavius shows ruthless monotheistic propaganda on its worst. I wrote about this particular incident in an earlier blog.
    Augurs did not claim that a bird knew the future, but that the future could be discerned from bird’s behaviour. Josephus is recording (approvingly) anti-divination propaganda which at the end carried the day but was offensively simplistic, manipulative, and ruthless towards nature.
    Of course in a similar mode you could disprove roosters’ ability to predict daybreak by killing all of them. But that would be an obviously stupid argument. We enjoy cock-crowing (most of the time :-) just like we rely on police dogs to find searched stuff etc...
    In the end we are dependent on nature, on plants and animals to feed us. Without harmony with nature we cannot survive, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of nature. And any religion which spreads such delusion needs to be overcome and replaced if we and the rest of the planet are to survive. As Lynn White wrote, we really need a new religion, we need a new deep mode of thinking about ourselves, nature and God. A large part of this new religion can consist in returning to a time before mechanistic and anthropocentric monotheism took over our faith. In this slide this anthopocentric monotheism is represented by Josephus, but in our faith tradition it is more fully represented by final editorial stages of the Tenach (the Old Testament).
We can share many misgivings and hesitations about postmodernism, but it is having a clear impact on our thinking. It is broadening our perspective and introduces new layers of imagination, creativity and playfulness together with a greater appreciation for natural phenomena and our human responsibility for the broad environment. Here I am presenting one of my beloved artists and architects and a prophet of a postmodern way of living. Hundertwasser was known to work with recycled and reclaimed materials. He was known for his rejection of prefabricated industrial engineering, for his respect and celebration of nature and for his love of specific decorativeness. He intentionally did not work with rulers; an uneven, naturally undulating sidewalk was to him “melody for the feet”. He marvelously demonstrates that ecology does not mean dull, grim, boring or fascist. In our world we need more Friedensreichs (Realms of freedom).

2014/03/28

Tricycle and Spitting Saviour

Many years ago, on one of my early birthdays, I was given a tricycle; beautiful, dark blue with a real chrome bicycle bell! I practised peddling on our driveway every weekday evening. The next weekend I was ready to take my “machine for a spin during a family walk in a park. First I began cautiously, but soon I was riding quite fast. Probably too fast, because after a small slope I took a little too sharp a turn and rolled my tricycle. I ended up on ground crying. Dad turned back my tricycle while mom wiped my tears, cleaned few scratches on my knee with a wet corner of her handkerchief and blew pain away. Soon I cycled again and all the way home, only with newly discovered caution. Since then I have observed other moms, even the mom of my kids, using a little saliva to clean some of their babies’ scratches, if only with just a licked finger. I guess it must be some kind of a motherly instinct.
    This Sunday’s Gospel reading opens with something similar. Jesus is reported using his saliva to bring healing to a blind man. The early church tried to eliminate any mention of this healing practice. Most likely Jesus healing with his saliva resembled some kind of magical pagan trick. Thankfully, three stories about this kind of healing survived (Mark 7:31-37; Mark 8:22-26 and John 9 - last two passages might be reworking of the same original story). I am convinced that deeper than any danger of pagan rituals is the loving archetype of instinctive, motherly divine care.
    This Sunday I do not plan to spend much time on this technique of healing. We will be concentrating on different levels of sight, vision and insight. Yet I still find this healing technique fascinating, especially vis a vis certain breeds of orthodox and conservative Christians. They are famously preoccupied with the salvific BLOOD of Jesus (just how many Christian hymns there are bout blood!) But in the gospels, the first “body fluid” which brought healing and thus salvation, was not Jesus’ blood, but his saliva - and not a single hymn about it! ;-)
Colourful Princetonian tricycle - I took this picture last autumn.

2014/03/21

Biblical Co-Creatress and (new) eco-theology

We continue our series of Lenten Lectures dedicated to eco-theology.
       This time we will examine ancient biological metaphors of creation and how they can inform and shape our own faith, world view and our living.

Many faithful Judeo-Christians would be mightily surprised by archaeological finds in Palestine (The Holy Land of our faiths). The sheer volume, and broad distribution of religious artifacts in Palestine clearly demonstrate that a strict biblical monotheism was wishful thinking and most likely a literary fiction projected back into history. Two years ago we looked into it in more detail in our Lenten Lectures on Biblical Polytheism (for instance How many Gods Made up God? or Did YHWH have a wife?).
       On this slide I want to highlight the use of the “Omega” symbol representing the womb as the beginning of life (with different fertility amulets). A similar omega symbol, probably representing an end-of-life womb (as a stone relief for a headrest) appears also in Jerusalem Tombs of Late Iron Age.
(Unfortunately I do not have time to go into a detailed discussion of the iconography of fertility goddesses - please refer to “Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel” by Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger. Fortress 1998.)

These two biblical texts, one from the book of Job and one from a Psalm (Wisdom Psalm in origin) clarify similar thinking about the mythical (symbolical) womb at both extremes of life’s journey.
     Two other artifacts with fertility iconography only confirm their continuous presence in Iron Age Palestine.

A similar theme of the beginning and end of life appears in Genesis 3:19. One is almost tantalized to replace dust with their names (You are Adam (Earthling) and to Adamah (Earth) you will return.) This mytho-poetic statement is immediately followed with the naming of Eve - and her name is explained as “a mother of all living.” Shortly afterwards - after conceiving with Adam and giving birth to Cain (almost a homophone with “begetting” a few words later) Eve is making a very unclear statement about “begetting a man with the LORD”. This text is clearly broken and damaged (most likely on purpose). Yet, we can still suspect behind it some substantial mythical narrative. Adam is from Earth (Adamah), Eve is the Mother of all Living. She is begetting man(/kind) with YHWH (originally there even might be another deity and the name YHWH was inserted here later).

Bronze age cylinder seal depicts an paradisal garden scene, a goddess in the form of a tree (of life) flanked by ibexes, a naked goddess with a worshiper, a seraph guarding the scene while buffalo, lion and a deer recline together at the bottom.

Quotation from Sirach confirms that the theme of womb at the beginning and at the end persisted through the intertestamental period.

In Proverbs 8 we have another powerful allusion to a female character (personification of Wisdom) present at the time of creation. Most likely her identification as “Wisdom” is only secondary - She might originally be the goddess Asherah. It is possible that this goddess was born of the god, became the god’s partner and assisted at creation (with some obstetrical allusions) , the vocabulary of the closing paragraph especially hints that she begat with the god and gave birth to mankind. This text is probably the clearest example of the goddess co-creatress in the bible. Some other aspects and possible interpretations and translations of this text are included in several older entries on this blog: Did YHWH have a wife? and Lady Wisdom.

Here are two other allusions to creation in the context of the womb and the giving birth, from the book of Job. Both are followed in a similar fashion by astrological references.
From Ugaritic texts we know about the daughters of Baal named Pdry and Ṭly. They are named Cloudy - a daughter of Dawn, and Dewy - a daughter of Cloud (For instance in KTU 1.3.i.24f)
We can observe the close proximity of Cosmogony (creation of the world) and Theogony (procreation of gods).
In 1966 Lynn White presented a lecture and in 1967 published in the journal Science a famous article "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" (The article has somehow slow and dated opening paragraphs but second half is still worthy of reading even almost 50 years on!) In this article White blamed the early medieval Christian understanding of the Creation Story for fostering the mentality which eventually led to the modern ecological crisis.
    White writes “What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationships. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”
    I believe that White is correct in his analysis that the Medieval Christian reception of the Creation Story created a mentality which led us to the current ecological trouble. White believes that a return to Franciscan piety and mentality might be our best ecological crisis strategy.
    I am convinced, that we need to go even further. The best strategy might be to undo the anthropocentric theistic dogmatism and re-discover and re-integrate the aspects of  the original (unadulterated) creation stories in all their diversity.
    In our last two lectures we have been attempting to “re-think our old creation stories”, peel out the medieval and modern misconceptions of creation stories and look for inspiration at their very sources. We witnessed that the original biblical creation stories were diverse, rich and very sensitive to the outside world. The Ancient Creation stories shared a different, gentler and more eco-sensitive world-view.
    Our ecological problem came with zealous monotheistic dogmatism, when God was artificially separated from nature, nature was objectified, and humans were lifted above it. I think it is time to consider undoing this religious aberration, and rediscover or at least heighten our sensitivity to a more organic religion at the source of the biblical creation stories.

2014/03/17

Beauty and Diversity of Biblical Cosmogonies

For centuries even millennia, western religious tradition (Judeo-Christianity) has been stricken by a particularly vicious form of anthropocentrism. Religion and theology were viewed from solely human or human-divine perspective and both human and divine were separated from the rest of environment.
     In the last decade, both in Europe as well as in North America, we have witnessed an emergence of a new theological stream called “ecological hermeneutics” and often abbreviated as “eco-hermeneutics”. It attempts to correct this egotistic anthropocentrism of western religious tradition by re-reading ancient religious texts paying special attention to ancient integration or religion and environment.
     This year via our Lenten Lectures we want to participate in this new theological development and discourse.

On this slide four main modes (metaphors) are used to talk about creation in the Ancient Near East. All these models (metaphors) reflect human experiences with creating, generating and organizing activities. Creation stories are modeled on the observed natural or societal processes of creation.
Biological creation happens by the means of growing, germinating, hatching from an egg, or through sexual activity of different kind.
The name for the Industrial category is not derived from modern industry but from the original Latin meaning “diligent effort” “skilled work”. Under this category, creation is compared to skilled work, for instance the work of an metallurgist, or a potter.
Military creation is modeled on combat, the vanquishing, conquering and organizing (reorganizing) of the domain of the conquered enemy. A classical example is known among student of religion under its German name as Chaoskampf - "War (with forces) of Chaos". World of order (Cosmos) is created by conquering and reorganising disorder (Chaos). 
Linguistic creation is derived from an experience with political or bureaucratic models of government. In developing or developed societies the rule and authority is exercised by means of the word (kings or priests ruled by giving commands, bureaucratic societies create written rules and laws)
With each category in this list we proceed from the most organic to higher societal models (requiring higher levels of societal organization)

The most widely known creation story is probably the one recorded in the first chapters of Genesis right at the beginning of the Jewish and Christian Bible.
     For more than a century it has been known that the creation narrative in Genesis consists of two independent creation stories (Creation in 6 days and Creation in the Garden). It is even possible that the first creation story (creation is six days) contains in its first two verses a third creation story - a classical example of Chaoskampf (overcoming the Chaos in the form of the formless void and the dark bottomless deep).
      The creation of the world in 7 days (six days of work and the seventh day of rest) has strong liturgical features (repetitive formulas).
      The creation of Adam in the Garden has strong features of industrial creation - Adam is shaped from dust and the verb used has a manufacturing, a pottery-making background.
This industrial metaphor of creation is nicely and more fully expressed in several other biblical passages and has a close parallel in Egyptian iconography and mythology (Egyptian royalty was viewed as created on the potter’s wheel by the god Khmun).
Similar motif appears also in the New Testament and with the development of new technology is utilized even in post-biblical gnostic literature.

Indeed biblical creation stories are not limited to the first two chapters of Genesis, nor they are limited to the Old Testament. On this slide we present some well expressed examples of Creation Stories from different parts of the New Testament.
This is my attempt at a graphic rendition of Ancient Near East Cosmology (world view) recreating it from different biblical fragments (quotations - many more exist, which are not included). This world view was fluent, contained substantial inconsistencies and logical contradictions yet represented a widely shared narrative.  

Now I would like to concentrate on two less known biblical cosmogonies (creation stories) one from Psalm 104 and one from the book of Job.



The whole of Psalm 104 is one great poetic creation story with many mythical references and a cosmology which closely corresponds to the preceding slide.
I would also like to highlight a special feature of many of these ANE creation stories which consists of a continuous divine care for creation, especially animals. The God of these creation stories is certainly not a god of deists, this god almost resembles underlying and sustaining principle of life. Especially in Psalm 104:27-30 God shares many characteristics which are in our modern discourse associated with the principles of biological evolution.

Now Cosmogony from the book of Job:
Another extensive and exquisite creation story of the Hebrew Bible is preserved right towards the end of the book of Job (Job 38 and 39). The Omnipotence and omniscience of God is being demonstrated with the help of an extensive rendition of a creation story.
     This Creation Story (just like the rest of the book of Job) is adorned with many beautiful poetic metaphors (many of them are archaic and mythical in their origins). And again in Job 38:39-39:4 we can observe the continuous gentle, even moving care of God for creation. Just as almost all ancient deities had their special sacred animals or plants, in this early monotheism (not yet alienated to nature) all creatures enjoy this special relationship - the list in Job or in Psalm 104 is almost certainly Pars Pro Toto.
  
Here is our summary: Although Ancient Near Eastern Cosmogonies (Creation Stories) were anthropocentric in their origins, their nature and their intentions (composed by humans, using human experience as a source for metaphors, and composed to inform human religion and worldview) they preserved some deep and important insights.
     Ancient cosmology clearly expressed a notion that the habitable world (in its form of a bubble positioned in between the split primordial waters) was a limited, closed environment. The Cosmos (realm of order) was just a small space surrounded on all sides with threatening waters of Chaos. It was clear that human action should promote order and avoid introducing elements of chaos. God (or the heads of the pantheons) was/were the ultimate protector/s against the flood and the keeper of the floodgates of Chaos. Existential recognition and general awareness of the fact that the world ecosystem is not limitless is only slowly reaching the minds of modern people.
     Further, from the theological point of view - creation stories even in their monotheistic biblical reworking make it clear that God is not separated from the universe; to the contrary, God remains intrinsically engaged in this world. Again, theology is only slowly recognizing the wisdom of these ancient texts, that our relatively recent philosophical separation of God from nature is artificial, idolatrous and harmful for our faith and our environment. All of nature is the collection of God’s sacred animals and plants. Thoughtless harming of any of creatures is like shooting Artemis’ deer in her sacred forest.