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Dialectic, or a waltz within revelation

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- on three-fold movements in time in Islam, Christianity and Judaism ]
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The three ages of Joachim of Fiore, in the latter's Venn-like diagram

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The question of how Islam in its many varieties views other religions is a compelling one, and perhaps never more so than in our own times. Today I was informed that many of William Chittick‘s papers were available for download on Academia.edu, and the first couple I wanted to read were these:

  • The Theological roots of peace and war according to Islam
  • A Sufi Approach to Religious Diversity — Ibn al-Arabi on the Metaphysics of Revelation
  • While scrounging around the net for an easily quotable form of the second paper, I ran across Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, Universal Validity of Religions and the Issue of Takfir — and like a dutiful netizen, I stopped off to read a little, and ran across the gem I’d like to bring you this morning>

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    Shaykh Faraz Rabbani offers a fascinating example of the dialectic three-step in the prophetic books of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (Tawrah, Injil and Qur’an), writing:

    A familiar example cited by ulama is the law of talion, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which was obligatory in the religious law of Moses (upon whom be peace), subsequently forbidden by the religious law of Jesus (upon whom be peace) in which “turning the other cheek” was obligatory; and finally both were superseded by the law of Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), which permits victims to take retaliation (qisas) for purely intentional physical injuries, but in which it is religiously superior not to retaliate but forgive.

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    In general, Christianity — having the Tanakh and New Testament for its scriptures — offers a binary or two-step process in place of this movement of the dialectic: the lex talionis is commanded in the Old Testament and rescinded in the New. Only in the work of Abbot Joachim of Fiore do we find a three-fold dispensation, in which the first term or “age of the Father” follows the many laws (mitzvot) of the Old Testament, the second follows Christ’s abridgement to include simply the two commandments of Matthew 22. 37-40:

    Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    And the third?

    Mirabile dictu, it is the age in which the presence of the Holy Spirit liberates us from all necessity of law. Gianni Vattimo, writing in After Christianity, expresses Joachim’s vision thus:

    Three are the stages of the world indicated by the sacred texts. The first is the stage in which we have lived under the law; the second is that in which we live under grace; the third is one in which we shall live in a more perfect state of grace. . . . The first passed in slavery; the second is characterized by filial slavery; the third wiII unfold in the name of freedom. The first is marked by awe, the second by faith, the third by charity. The first period regards the slaves; the second regards the sons; the third regards the friends. … The first stage is ascribed to the Father, who is the author of all things; the second to the Son, who has been esteemed worthy to share our mud; the third to the Holy Spirit, of which the apostle says “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

    The Archdruid’s Report discussed Augustinian and Joachimite views of the nature of time a while back, and while his entire post is worth your attention, here I would like to pick out this one paragraph:

    What made Joachim’s vision different from any of the visionary histories that came before it—and there were plenty of those in the Middle Ages — was that it was a story of progress. The Age of Love, as Joachim envisioned it, was a great improvement on the Age of Law, and the approaching Age of Liberty would be an improvement on the Age of Love; in the third age, he taught, the Church would wither away, and people would live together in perfect peace and harmony, with no need for political or religious institutions. To the church authorities of Joachim’s time, steeped in the Augustinian vision, all this was heresy; to the radicals of the age, it was manna from heaven, and nearly every revolutionary ideology in Europe from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries drew heavily on Joachimist ideas.

    Indeed, Norman Cohn in his classic Pursuit of the Millennium sees Joachim’s Third age in the Drittes or Tausendjähriges Reich (the Third or Thousand Year = Millennial Kingdom) of Nazism, and in Friedrich Engels’ notion of the “withering away of the State” — both great tolitarian systems of the last century thus being under the spell of Joachim’s apocalyptic notion of utopia.

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    And Judaism?

    Judaism has its own developmental scheme, in which sacrificial Temple worship gives way to the synagogues, talmudic scholarship and the diaspora — yet always with the Pesach refrain:

    Next year in Jerusalem.

    Here too, it may be surmised, time moves to the music of the dialectic.

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    Torture, a Rolex, & the Dalai Lama

    Thursday, June 19th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- torture by photographic means, and compassion as exchange ]
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    It is the image above, not the Dalai Lama himself, that has been “tortured” photoshopically. It is featured, along with similarly “tortured” images of Iggy Pop and Karl Lagerfeld, in a Belgian ad campaign from Amnesty International — in which each “iconic” figure’s tortured image is accompanied by an unlikely quote to illustrate the series theme, “Torture a man and he will tell you anything.”

    I know nothing of Lagerfeld, and only enough about Iggy Pop to agree he likely wouldn’d admit that Justin Bieber “is the future of rock’n'roll” — but yes, I am pretty confident that if you ever hear or see the Dalai Lama claiming that anyone who doesn’t have a Rolex by the age of 50 has failed in life, His Holiness has been tortured — either for real or, as here, in an ad.

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    I can’t easily speak for Iggy Pop or Karl Lagerfeld, but the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, and it is worth noting that Buddhism addresses the question of “who suffers” in a manner that is relevant to the use of the Dalai Lama’s image above.

    From a Mahayana Buddhist point of view, as Dr John Makransky puts it in his chapter on Compassion in Buddhist Psychology in Germer & Siegel’s Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy:

    Another renowned 8th century Indian teacher, Santideva, by pointing out the constructed nature of concepts of “self” and “other,” shows us how to re-employ those concepts to re-configure our world into an expression of compassion and wisdom, entering into the bodhisattva path. “Self” and “other” are merely relative, contextual terms, Santideva argues, like “this bank” and “the other bank” of a river. Neither side of a river is intrinsically an “other bank.” (Harvey, 2000). Similarly, it is a cognitive error to think of other beings as intrinsically “other.” For all are “self” from their own perspectives; all are like oneself in their deepest potential, desire for happiness, and deluded patterning; and all are undivided from oneself in the empty, inter-dependent ground of all things (Wallace and Wallace, 1997). By reflecting on the sameness of self and others in such ways, and the tremendous benefit to our mind that would come by reversing the usual constructs of “self,” “other” and associated feelings, we explore viewing others as our very self while sensing our self as a neutral other. Through such practice, we discover, the great burden and suffering of clinging to our self over others is relieved, and we can increasingly give rise to the compassion and wisdom that feels and recognizes all beings as like ourselves (Wallace and Wallace, 1997).

    and:

    In Tibet this practice of “exchanging self and other” is commonly given the form of tong-len meditation, in which we exchange self for other by imagining that we take others’ sufferings into the empty ground of our being while freely offering others all of our own virtue, well-being and resources. This imaginative pattern helps conform our mind to the wisdom of emptiness that recognizes others as ultimately undivided from our self, and gives that wisdom its most fundamental compassionate expression.

    Indeed, the Dalai Lama teaches the practice of tonglen — literally, “the practice of giving and taking” — himself, and explains it thus:

    “Exchanging ourselves with others” should not be taken in the literal sense of turning oneself into the other and the other into oneself. This is impossible anyway. What is meant here is a reversal of the attitudes one normally has towards oneself and others. We tend to relate to this so-called “self” as a precious core at the center of our being, something that is really worth taking care of, to the extent that we are willing to overlook the well-being of others. In contrast, our attitude towards others often resembles indifference; at best we may have some concern for them, but even this may simply remain at the level of a feeling or an emotion. On the whole we are indifferent we have towards others’ well-being and do not take it seriously. So the point of this particular practice is to reverse this attitude so that we reduce the intensity of our grasping and the attachment we have to ourselves, and endeavor to consider the well-being of others as significant and important.

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    It is instructive to compare the “tonglen” form of practice and insight described here with two comments I quoted recently in my post on dehumanization and its consequences

    Archbishop Tutu:

    when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.

    And Jonathan Shay:

    Restoring honor to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self-respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honor.” This in true even in victory; in defeat, the dishonoring makes life unendurable.

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    From yet another perspective, isn’t what all these writers are getting at– from the Lama via the Archbishop to the psychiatrist — exactly the different the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber pointed up in his classic book, I and Thou?

    Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou. The man who does not know this, with his very being know this, does not know love; even though he ascribes to it the feelings he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses.

    and again:

    Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity.

    And isn’t this also the core of Charles Williams‘ teachings of Substitution within the Co-Inherence — a practice which, as he writes:

    exchanged the proper self, and wherever need was, drew breath daily in another’s place, according to the grace of the Spirit ‘dying each other’s life, living each other’s death’. Terrible and lovely is the general substitution of souls…

    I have added a couple of commas to make Williams’ dense text a little more accessible here, but his thought in these matters is profound, and not too distant from that of tonglen: that Christians, acting within the will of God, can offer themselves to take on themselves each other’s specific burdens, perils and illnesses, in an “exchange” of love.

    For those wishing to dig deeper into Charles Williams — the sadly neglected and no less brilliant friend of Tolkien and CS Lewis — and his doctrine of Substitution in particular, Susan Wendling‘s paper Flesh knows what Spirit knows: Mystical Substitution in Charles Williams’ Vision of Co-Inherence seems a good place to start, and her bibliography offers further sources to explore.

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    All of which, it meseems, is a far cry indeed from the lure of the Rolex

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    Eric Cantor and the invisible menagerie

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- who is personally blind to the ultraviolet, the infrared and the classified -- and speaking of intel analysis, to a subset of elephants and gorillas, too? ]
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    Noting quickly that I don’t “do” American politics, I’d still like to point to the occasional specifically religious aspect of the matter. In today’s New York Times, for instance, under the heading Cantor’s Loss a Bad Omen for Moderates, we read:

    David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said another, more local factor has to be acknowledged: Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

    “Part of this plays into his religion,” Mr. Wasserman said. “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”

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    Talk about an elephant in the room — or was it a gorilla? Have you seen this brilliant remake of a classic video?
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    How helpful is Richards J. Heuer‘s Analysis of Competing Hypotheses in finding invisible gorillas — or elephants? I wouldn’t even know how to test the question using PARC’s ACH software: the evidence is there, but if we’re “blinkered” we won’t even see it.

    And just how blinkered are we?

    There may be known elephants in the room — to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld — and also unknown elephants. How will we ever know about the unknown elephants, before they tusk us?

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    Question and Answer:

    Q: When is an elephant a gorilla?
    A: When it’s in the room with you.

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    On ecumenical destruction

    Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Kosovo I know little about, Timbuktu I've heard praised, Bamiyan I've visited ]
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    Synagogue:

    Before the conflict, the synagogue held thousands of religious and cultural treasures, including hundreds-years-old Torah scrolls, historical texts, precious dining ware, and ancient Judaica of all sorts. Some of the items were reportedly looted in the early days of the war. Some were reportedly placed in safekeeping. Many remained in the building until its destruction.

    Buddha:

    Two large Buddhas were intentionally destroyed with artillery fire and explosives by members of the Taliban militia on March 11-12, 2001.

    Mosque:

    The UN cultural body Unesco watched in horror on Saturday as Mali extremists ravaged shrines in the fabled city of Timbuktu which it had listed as endangered sites just days before.

    Church:

    The ongoing de-Christianization of Kosovo continues and unlike the past frenzy of the anti-Serbian mass media in the West, we mainly have a deadly silence about the reality of Kosovo and the continuing Albanianization of this land. However, how is it “just” and “moral” to persecute minorities and to alienate them from mainstream society; and then to illegally recognize this land without the full consensus of the international community?

    Historic site:

    “There is no authority here. Syria was one of the jewels of the crown of the Middle East,” Landis says. “The most beautiful Crusader castle, Krak des Chevaliers, undisturbed, has been bombed by both sides because rebels took up and made it a stronghold. The government bombed it. It makes you want to cry, but I guess that’s the price of war.”

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    No religious animosity is necessary for destruction.

    Rock art:

    Vandals have destroyed prehistoric rock art in lawless southern Libya, endangering a sprawling tableau of paintings and carvings classified by UNESCO as of “outstanding universal value”.

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    I have set before you life and death

    Sunday, June 1st, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- tasking Heuer's ACH theory with the old question of revelation vs scientific discovery? ]
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    For a very pithy take on the pivotal question facing those who adhere to the literal interpretation of a given scripture as God’s infallible Word, try these two quotes:

    A very similar question, it seems to me, can be put to those who hold that science, by virtue of its falsifiability, moves in a manner that will be seen to be asymptotic to infallibility.

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    I’m not saying the two options Pastor Hagee Jr offers are the only options, nor that Christianity is the only religion whose scriptures pose this sort of question to its followers.

    However, there are two fairly clear general options laid out here, and they cut across many fields, from “what sort of biological education would you like to see implemented in schools?” via “how should we respond to warnings of the accelerating risks associated with global warming?” to “are the Iranian nuclear negotiators bound by their concepts of Shia theology, and if so, how does that affect our analysis of their strategic thinking?”

    Let’s call the competing hypotheses here “revelation” and “discovery”. One interesting question: does each of them require evidentiary validation, or is one of them “obviously” self-validating, and if so, how?

    I ask this, partly because I just obtained ACH software, where ACH refers to the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses as described by Richards Heuer Jr in his Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, and specifically in chapter 8.

    Pitting an “infinite and revelatory” hypothesis against a “finite and discoverable” one is one way to test the limits of the ACH system — either it’s a totally irrational and foolish use of a rational tool, or a western equivalent of the zen koan system, depending on your — eh? — hypothesis.

    Life or death? Science or revelation? Which is which?

    How do you know? How can you be sure?

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    In the ballpark, btw?

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    Steven J. Brams, Biblical Games: Game Theory and the Hebrew Bible

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