zenpundit.com » 2012 » October

Archive for October, 2012

New Book: Rome’s Last Citizen

Monday, October 29th, 2012

Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni 

Just picked this up, a biography of the Roman Republic’s most dogged defender whose fanatical inflexibility played a large part in it’s ruin, Cato the Younger.

Caesar did not fear Cato’s generalship. Nor his rhetoric. Caesar feared his auctoritas. Cato committed suicide for that reason, so it would never be compromised for all posterity, unlike Cicero or Brutus, Cato’s son-in-law and assassin of Julius Caesar, who had both surrendered and collaborated with Caesar’s new regime.

Unlike some of the other ancient history books I have reviewed, the authors are not classicists like Adrian Goldsworthy but pundits at The Huffington Post and various media outlets. I’m interested to see where they go with this, being non-specialists.


Frankenstorm: some rules proposed for prophecy & prediction

Sunday, October 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — some thoughts on news reports and prophecy, since it is not unheard of for people to bolster their versions of prophecy by quoting current events ]

AP satellite image - which might as well be titled, in Shelley's words, "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"


I want to explore the relation of prophecy and prediction to news, and my inbox in the last couple of days has provided me with a simple way to compare and contrast the two.

Here, then, are two versions of what might shortly come to pass:

The upper panel offers a snippet from the Washington Post‘s piece today — in other words, the news. The lower panel offers the headline from an overtly scripture-driven source — in other words, prophecy.

The Joel Rosenberg piece providing an interpretation of what might be just a day away, under that alarming headline, begins:

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations.” (Haggai 2:6-7) Just days before one of the most significant and momentous presidential and Congressional elections in American history, God is reminding us that America’s fate lies not in the hands of the politicians, but in His hands. Weather experts are warning Americans on the East Coast to “get ready, be prepared” for Hurricane Sandy, which they say could prove to be one of the most devastating storms in American history. Is that hype, or is it true? Tens of millions Americans are not taking any chances. They are buying water, food, gasoline and other supplies as the storm moves towards land. I can tell you that my family and I in the Washington, D.C. area are doing the same.


The interesting question from my POV is whether it is legitimate to invoke supernatural causes when natural causes could sufficiently account for what is observed to be happening.

There is indeed a major storm system in the offing, and it is indeed as yet uncertain whether it will be devastating, a comparatively minor irritant, or somewhere in between. But the Washington Post appears content to attribute the possibilities to natural forces, whereas Rosenberg prefers an explanation in terms of his views on morality.

Basically, there are two positions here:

  • If we are shaken, it is because we are sinful.
  • If we are shaken, it is because natural forces are interacting in such a way as to cause devastation on the scale of human interest.
  • I would argue for a third view:

  • If we are shaken, it is because we have messed enough with the planet’s intricate homeostases as to drive weather patterns to inhospitable extremes.
  • **

    Here are some rules that the looming Frankenstorm has prompted me to consixder:


    Don’t overstate the case: if you want a worst case scenario for warning and planning purposes, clearly mark it as such, and at least sketch the alternative scenarios and an informed guess as to their respective likelihoods.


    If you associate a presumed cause to an expected effect, and when the time comes the effect does not happen, admit that the cause as presumed was flawed within your own system of explanation. In the case of Rosenberg’s storm, should it prove to be less of a shaker than Rosenberg’s headline suggests, this would mean he would admit that God obviously didn’t intend to shake America all that much — either because America is less sinful and more pleasing to God than Rosenberg gives it credit for, or because the threat of the storm caused a sufficient moral awakening to make its actuality unnecessary, or because God is more long-suffering than Rosenberg initially imagined.


    Keep your explanation internally consistent. The storm is, even in Rosenberg’s sense, a meteorological phenomenon — which is why his post carries the AP satellite image of Hurricane Sandy that I put at the top of this post. It is a stretch — biblically permitted, but a stretch nevertheless — to assert a moral cause (such as tolerance of homosexuality) for a meteorological event, particularly if the known meteorological causes would in themselves be sufficient to account for it.


    And then there’s the most interesting part of all.

    Suppose that prophecy isn’t a matter of specific and accurate prediction, but a sketch of possible outcomes, along the lines of “if you carry on like that, you’ll drink yourself into an early grave.” When someone says something like that, they don’t mean the person concerned will find an empty grave and get so drunk as to fall into it — they mean that excessive imbibing, over the long term, puts the imbiber at risk of a variety of distressing ends, fatal car crashes and kidney failure among them.

    We have the saying, “pride comes before a fall.” Is that prophecy? It is found in scripture, in Proverbs 16.18:

    Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

    Arguably the proud and power-hungry have a tendency to overextend themselves — the Greeks would call it hubris, and see nemesis close on its heels. Is it prophecy, then, or a simple observation of human nature? It certainly seems to fit quite a number of circumstances — to be “fulfilled” on a regular basis.


    My friend and mentor the shaman Wallace Black Elk emphasized to me that in his Lakota tradition, prophecies were understood as visionary warnings of likely outcomes to be avoided — not as inevitabilities.


    What I’m getting at here is that as predictions become specific — Edgar Whisenart‘s prediction that the Rapture would occur between September 11 and 13, 1988, or Jose Arguelles proclamation that the harmonic convergence of August 17, 1987 would be the great moment of shift — or are interpreted in specific ways — I linked to a minister preaching that Oprah Winfrey was the Antichrist only yesterday — we may be mistaking a poetic reading of trends for an act of previsioning in detail a predetermined, preordained and predestined future.

    From my POV, this would mean that prophetic texts should be read as poetic foreshadowings — “put too much strain on the environment and it will bite back at you” — rather than as matrices into which the events of the day should be shoehorned — back in the days of Nero and Domitian, back in the days of Hitler and Stalin, or today, tomorrow and tomorrow…

    In this way, both prophetic and scientific traditions can be appropriately honored.

    Of quantity and intensity: the case of the Sufiyan

    Sunday, October 28th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — catching the apocalyptic mention in a broad sectarian overview ]


    I’d like to discuss the last four paragraphs of a recent NYT piece on the influx of Iraqi Shiites to Syria:

    Iraqi Shiites did not initially take sides in Syria. Many Shiites here despise Mr. Assad for his affiliation with the Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein, and the support he gave foreign Sunni fighters during the Iraq war.

    But as the uprising became an armed rebellion that began to attract Sunni extremists, many Shiites came to see the war in existential terms. Devout Shiites in Iraq often describe the Syrian conflict as the beginning of the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time by predicting that an army, headed by a devil-like figure named Sufyani, will rise in Syria and then conquer Iraq’s Shiites.

    It was the bombing of an important shrine in Samarra in 2006 that escalated Iraq’s sectarian civil war, and many Iraqis see the events in Syria as replicating their own recent bloody history, but with even greater potential consequences.

    Hassan al-Rubaie, a Shiite cleric from Baquba, the capital of Diyala Province, said, “The destruction of the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Syria will mean the start of sectarian civil war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.”


    There’s a lot going on there, and I just want to point you to the little diagram I posted above, which features what I consider one very significant point that jumped out at me on this occasion from the “larger picture”.

    It’s my impression that the name Sufiyan will be far less familiar to most readers than the names Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Iraq, Syria and so on are nations — real geopolitical entities with territories, wealth, militaries, populations, factions, fighting and so forth. The Sufyani, by contrast, is a single person, perhaps a figure of legend.

    For the contemporary western mind, therefore, it is easy to read those last four paragraphs and be struck by the breadth, the sheer physical extent of the potential conflict described there – and after noting the basic concept of sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites, that may in fact be the major “takeaway” from the article: this thing could be huge.

    I want to suggest there’s a more significant, and less studied takeaway – that Sufyani is the key word here, because Sufyani is a figure in a specifically end-times narrative, a precursor to and noted adversary of the Mahdi.


    That’s my bottom line here – that this individual the Sufyan may be less known and less impressive-sounding than a swathe of nations between the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf – but he represents the power of end-times belief, and the intensity that inevitably accompanies the final showdown between good and evil, with heaven and hell the only possible outcomes of one’s chance and choice to participate.


    There is not a whole lot of documentation in English regarding the Sufyani, especially as viewed in Shiite eschatology, but this quick excerpt archived from an Iranian state media site will give us a basic overview:

    According to narrations Sofyani, a descendant of the Prophet’s archenemy Abu Sofyan will seize Syria and attack Iraq and the Hejaz with the ferocity of a beast. The Sofyani will commit great crimes against humanity in Iraq slaughtering people bearing the names of the infallible Imams, and his army will lay siege to the city of Kufa and to Holy Najaf. Of course, many incidents take place in this line and finally Imam Mahdi sends troops who kill the Sofyani in Beit ol-Moqaddas, the Islamic holy city in Palestine that is currently under occupation of the Zionists. Soon a pious person from the progeny of Imam Hasan Mojtaba (AS) meets with the Imam. He is a venerable God-fearing individual from Iran. Before the Imam’s appearance he fights oppression and corruption and enters Iraq to lift the siege of Kufa and holy Najaf and to defeat the forces of Sofyani in Iraq. He then pledges allegiance to Imam Mahdi.

    The Rice University scholar David Cook gives a worthwhile account of the Sufiyani in Shiite perspective, in his Hudson Institute paper Messianism in the Shiite Crescent [CC note: this paragraph added about an hour after first posting]:

    First among the major omens connected with the belief in the Mahdi’s imminent return is the appearance of his apocalyptic opponent, the Sufyani. Mainstream tradition tells that the Sufyani will be a tyrannical Arab Muslim ruler who will hail from the region of Syria and who will brutally oppress the Shiite peoples. Before the 2003 collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, many messianic writers in both the Sunni and Shiite traditions identified Saddam Hussein as the Sufyani. Since 2004, however, there has been a tendency to gloss over the classical belief in the Sufyani’s Syrian-Muslim identity and to identify him instead with the United States (as many Iraqis hold the U.S. responsible for the slaughters in their country.) Another recent trend within Shiite messianism has been to identify the Sufyani with prominent Sunni radicals such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed June 2006), who was virulently anti-Shiite. From the perspective of the classical sources, Zarqawi would have indeed been an excellent candidate, because his hometown in Jordan is extremely close to where the Sufyani is supposed to come from.

    It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the Sufyani also features in the (Sunni AQ strategist) Abu Musab al-Suri‘s work, the Call to Global Islamic Resistance. As Jean-Paul Filiu reports:

    Abu Musab al-Suri looks with favor upon a hadith that speaks of the restoration of Islam by an armed force “coming from the east.” This will be the vanguard of the Mahdi, known by its black banners and led by Shuaib ibn Saleh, whom every believer will join “even [if it means] marching in the snow.” The Sufyani, whose face is scarred by smallpox, will rise up against it in Damascus and ravage Palestine, Egypt, and Hijaz, proceeding as far as Mecca, where he will kill the “Pure Soul.” Yet it is also at Mecca that the Mahdi will appear, and he will reconquer Damascus after eighteen years…

    Meanwhile, out there on the wild profusion of the net, there’s naturally controversy as to who the Sufyani might be – suggestions I’ve seen include Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Abdullah II of Jordan – in much the same way that the identity of the Antichrist is debated in Christian eschatological circles, with candidates ranging from the Emperor Nero to Ronald Reagan and more recently Oprah Winfrey [link is to an amazing video clip which also features President Obama and Louis Farrakhan].



    So. Rather than – or in addition to – considering the sheer extent of geopolitical space referenced in the NYT piece, I’d suggest we should pay attention to the intensity factor signaled by the mention of the Sufyani. Following that tack, after all, we will also be considering a wide swathe of territory —

    in Abu Musab al Suri’s terms, from Syria via Palestine, Egypt, and the Hijaz, to Mecca – but with the added intensity that apocalyptic war brings with it.

    The war and peace paradox

    Saturday, October 27th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — a paradox in two graphics ]

    The upper image shows the British “Firmin Sword of Peace” which was awarded this week to the 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group (15 POG) for their work in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence news report described the award thus:

    The prestigious Firmin Sword of Peace is given to the unit or establishment of each Service judged to have made the most valuable contribution to humanitarian activities by establishing good and friendly relations with the inhabitants of any community at home or overseas.

    The lower image shows an artistic rendering of the peace symbol, seen on a wall in Melbourne, Australia, which is consonant with the old Strategic Air Command motto: Peace is our Profession.


    Here there be paradox.

    Cool theological footnotes to a heated political argument.

    Saturday, October 27th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — Christian theology on two-fold logic, and its crucial importance in understanding the role of evil and the question of theodicy, with an aside concerning Islamic theology on the breath of life in utero, hence also abortion ]

    As I shall say more than once, my own interest here is not in discussing the merits or demerits of a recent political debate, but to add a couple of theological nuances for our consideration.

    Richard Moursock is reported to have said:

    I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

    Joe Donnelly is reported to have responded:

    The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen — ever. What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.

    Mourdock then apparently responded:

    What I said was, in answering the question form my position of faith, I said I believe that God creates life. I believe that as wholly and as fully as I can believe it. That God creates life. Are you trying to suggest that somehow I think that God pre-ordained rape? No, I don’t think that. That’s sick. Twisted. That’s not even close to what I said. What I said is that God creates life.

    Similarly, Rick Santorum is reported to have said:

    I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. We have to make the best of a bad situation.


    My sole intention here is to add in a note or two about theology — I explicitly do not address the moral, political, legal and gender ramifications of this issue.

    We are accustomed to think in terms of what I’d call “single-track” logic: the logic of Aristotle’s excluded middle. Christianity however, in its gospel-based forms, on occasion uses a “two-track” logic, in which something can be both timeless and temporal, or both the will of God and a clear defiance of that will.

    An example of the first can be found in Christ saying of himself, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8.58).

    On the face of it, that’s ridiculous – Christ appears to be claiming to have preceded Abraham, who is commonly called “our father Abraham” (Avraham Avinu, Rab in Yoma 28b cf. Genesis 26.3, cf. also Abeena Ibraheem in the Qur’an, 22.78). If single-track logic obtains, that’s a fair and reasonable critique.

    The clashing tenses of the two verbs, however, gives us the clue that a two-track logic is at work: that Christ is claiming to be in eternal presence, in a manner that logically “precedes” Abraham’s admittedly prior place when considered in terms of a purely temporal sequence.


    That piece of two-track logic doesn’t have any direct bearing on the politics of abortion in today’s USA, although it was a scandalous enough paradox to the Jews Jesus was addressing that the next verse states:

    Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by…

    I have quoted it first to make the point that two-track logic is at work in the sayings of Christ in the New Testament – but the key reference point illuminating what Moursock and those of like mind might say concerning an act both being in flagrant defiance of God’s will and also in some way partaking of it would be the betrayal of Christ, resulting directly in his arrest and crucifixion – the hideously cruel form of capital punishment used in that time and place.

    Matthew 26.24 indicates that the betrayal and death of Jesus are the means by which a sacrifice is made, in fulfillment of prophecy, and then goes on to point up a double moral:

    The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.

    Reading that, it’s clear that within Christian two-track logic, an outcome (in our contemporary case, fertilization) can fall within the will of God, while there is “woe unto that man by whom” that outcome was brought willfully and sinfully effect.

    Thus considering a child born of rape a blessing in its own right may — from a strictly theological standpoint — coexist with the idea that the rape should be abhorred and the rapist subject to whatever punishment the law may provide.


    I should briefly note here two other pieces that address parts of the same issue:

  • Sarah Sentilles, Rape and Richard Mourdock’s Semi-Omnipotent God, posted at Religion Dispatches
  • G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Richard Mourdock: the theology behind his rape comments, posted at the Christian Science Monitor
  • Obviously, I am not impressed with Christian theological commentaries that miss the “twofold logic” at work wherever evil is encountered in a good creation.

    The case of the betrayal of Christ is the clearest possible indication that God can will the outcome of an act which is in flagrant opposition to his will. The gospels state and Christians believe that Christ’s betrayal itself, not just the consequential salvation of the world by virtue of his sacrifice, was foretold in prophecy: in this sense, even the betrayal was part of the divine will, though as we have seen, that in no way excuses Judas from his complicity in deicide.

    To be perfectly clear: it is my opinion that only the twofold logic I have pointed to satisfactorily approaches the age-long question of theodicy or the problem of evil, which I hope to return to in an upcoming post.


    It is perhaps worth also noting here that the Qur’an suggests that life enters the developing body of a child in the middle of the second trimester, 120 days after conception — although we should also remember that “40 days” can mean “quite a while” in Semitic cultures, if Hebrew figurative usage us anything to go by.

    Thus we read in the Qur’an, 5.12-14:

    And verily We did create man from a quintessence (of clay). Then We placed him (as a drop of sperm) in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood. Then of that clot We made a (foetus) lump. Then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh. Then We developed out of it another creature (by breathing life into it). So blessed be Allah, the most marvellous Creator.

    Expanding on this, in the premier hadith collection, Sahih al-Bukhari (# 3036), we read:

    Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) said:

    Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his deeds, his livelihood, his (date of) death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into him…

    I am indebted to commenters on Juan Cole‘s post Mourdock, Rape as a Gift of God, and Islamic Sharia on his informed Comment blog for the impetus to research the question of life in utero from an Islamic perspective.

    Wisdom traditions may differ across centuries and cultures…


    In closing, let me repeat: this posts presents footnotes on points in theologies, and is not intended to make a statement or give any indication of a political opinion.

    My personal keen interest is in how our valuation of our human situation would change if more of us had an acute sense of two-track logic as it applies to “eternity within the temporal” and its corollary, the mutual interdependence of all that is.

    Switch to our mobile site