22/23- The Gospels as an Epic Comedy

Mark Van Doren taught me a long time ago that an epic was episodic in that there were many events that filled in the space between the initial action and the final action. These  events did not so much move the action forward as take place within the environment created by the story’s parameters. From that I conclude, upon many years reflection, that epics are different from novels in this respect (as well as many other ways) because while there may be digressions and subplots in novels, much of the plot in novels is used to move the story forward. By these lights, I also conclude, “Exodus” is not an epic. It is too tightly plotted for that. It is more of what Vico would call sacred history, which means that it shows what had to happen rather than what might have happened or what in fact did happen. The Gospels are another sacred history because there too the narrators are recounting what had to have happened and did while the narrator of a novel is just along for the ride, for the telling of the tale, rather than the authoritative voice that commands belief in the inevitability of what is unfolded by a story or set of stories.

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20/23- Freedom in "Galatians"

To understand St. Paul’s view of freedom, we have to begin by understanding that Christianity is deeply indebted to Judaic literalism. The important events in Old Testament history taken to have really happened, and so subject to the falsifiability principle, in that one can conceive of them as not having happened and so having opened up for ages to come a lively debate about whether the remains of Noah’s Ark lie on top of Mt. Ararat, or whether Joshua could have indeed kept the sun from setting. This has to do with the ways in which human individuality is a kind of freedom, that rediscovered in the Renaissance, but also traceable back from Luther to St. Augustine and to St. Paul himself. The thing is, though, that this is not only an evolution of doctrine but of emotions that are granted by religious experience that can be summarized in doctrine but have a life of their own apart from doctrine. Ideas are the elaborations of what they are sensed to be and that what they are sensed to be is learned intellectually and not just from the unconscious mind or a preternatural sense of the world. Moreover, consciously wrought or acquired ideas also become experiences that are transmitted through their tags or imagistic associations rather than through thought.

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Faith in "Galatians"

St. Paul’s “Letter to the Galatians” must have come from an early part of his ministry when he was still establishing his authority as an interpreter of Jesus. St. Paul gives this away by defending himself at the beginning of the letter from the accusation that he had been untrue to his view that circumcision was not essential for someone who had come over from the Gentile community to become a Christian.  In the course of his discussion of that sacramental and ritualistic issue, he comes to clarify his view of what is very distinctive about Christianity: that it is an allegiance to a belief that Jesus, as a matter of historical fact, that He had arisen from the dead and had by His crucifixion atoned for the sins of mankind. Christianity is a matter of belief rather than a matter of group identity or ritual or law or ecstatic experience, which is what other religions had been. He also explains how the nature of a religion of belief provides its adherents with kinds of freedom they would not otherwise experience and that far transcends the social categories of master and slave. Explaining these two ideas requires St. Paul to delve into topics that would seem too philosophical for someone not professionally trained, but we really don’t know enough about St. Paul’s background to speculate on what kind of learning he had. What St. Paul does in this letter and elsewhere, regardless of his intellectual training, is elaborate on the idea of what a proposition is and requires and so is his own way of introducing what will serve, somewhat down the road, as the basis for the scientific revolution: the assertion that propositions are either true or false and not merely having some grain of truth within what is largely a metaphor. Down the road will also be found the doctrine of freedom that is, when it becomes shorn of its religious associations, a crowning achievement of the early modern world: freedom means voluntary choice.

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19/23- The Golden Rule Revisited

The substance of the Ten Commandments, however radical the form in which it is stated, is conventional in that it refers to what is owed to God, now that he is defined as a single God, and what is by the way owed to other people, in that it is still about settling family disputes: families don’t steal from one another or seek to appropriate one another’s wives, which is the same thing. It says nothing about what has come to be called social justice in that it does not refer to the condition of the poor or the sick and it does not refer to how people should get along with one another, except insofar as they should not get in one another’s way.

The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the quality of human interaction, how people get along with one another whether in friendship or in opposition, and not just with regard to extreme violations of decorum. It therefore supplies a way of life rather than a way to safeguard a way of life not otherwise open to question. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, suggests a new moral tone that is to be brought into the world that is so important it is to inveigle itself into everyone’s personality and a person should feel guilty for not living up to it every day and in every way. It does so by proclaiming an adage which can be distinguished from other adages, such as “Do unto others as it suits your interests” or “Do unto others more graciously than you expect them to do unto you”. In trying to guide everyday behavior and not just strictly moral conduct, indeed by reducing moral conduct to an advisory about everyday behavior, it is a species of etiquette or politeness and remains the sort of thing that underlies advice columnists: do the decent thing, which is defined as the kind of thing that takes other people’s feelings into account, and you will feel better for it. Treating morality as a form of politeness, as does the Golden Rule, is every bit as radical as treating morality as a law, which is what the Ten Commandments established. Referring morality to the more general category of politeness also expands rather than just defines more accurately the scope of morality.

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18/23- Morality and Religion

There are four features of religion that apply to any person who is accurately described as religious and to any social institution that is worth calling a religion. People who are religious and the organizations they join so as to further and be inculcated with religious feelings are, first of all, god-centered in that they are taken with a sense of awe at the powers that lie “behind the veil”, as Weber would call it. Such people, secondly, may also be taken or not so much taken with a ritualized sense of how to conduct a relationship with supernatural things, whether through sacraments, prayer, or other rituals, such as making a journey to Mecca. Thirdly, religious people and religious institutions may also take the strictures of a moral code as the heart of the religion, as the way God carries on his activities within this world. Some priests and rabbis in mid-Twentieth Century America felt called upon to preach about civil rights. And, finally, religious people can sense their community, whether of fellow believers or even of the civil society beyond that, or of the ethnic group of which they are a member, as itself having a sacred dimension. In that last case, the church is the congregate consciousness of its members and so it is the congregation that makes its members holy.

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17/23- Jesus on Forgiveness

There is much to be learned about Christian forgiveness by considering what forgiveness consists of as a feature of ordinary social life. Forgiveness is an asymmetric social relationship because the two parties to the disclosure of the secret offer different things to one another. The person asking forgiveness reveals a secret that will put that person in a bad light. The person does so because the secret in question has become too much of a burden to bear; it has too much separated the person from his friend or lover or comrades because the person in his or her own mind harps on the secret and whether to tell it or not, on what to do with it. The person who discloses a secret then awaits a response. The moment is inevitably suspenseful because there are a number of things the person whose forgiveness has been asked can do. The forgiver can decide not to do that but lambast the person asking forgiveness for being just as bad as the disclosure reveals the person to be, that the person is nothing but this lapse or is best summarized by this lapse. You cheated on me? I should have expected it. It just shows you were no damn good to begin with and that is the last straw and I will have nothing else to do with you. Or I will be very angry for a while and I will see if I can come to forgive you. Meanwhile, sleep on the couch. Or I love you so much I can even accept this deep wound you have inflicted on me. Or, as the wife of the disgraced Governor Eliot Spitzer is reported to have said, “It is a wife’s job to look after sex,” and so she was responsible, the guilty party who required forgiveness for having ruined her husband’s career.

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16/23- Christian Forgiveness

It is easy enough to appreciate that the Christian formula for salvation is more complicated than is a secret handshake that gains a person entrance into a private club. A person can confess he is a sinner even if he doesn’t truly believe it because part of sinfulness is not being fully convinced of it and so it is an emotion that will have to be learned. The person who admits to being a sinner will have to accept the humiliation of knowing themselves ever afterwards as a sinner who is for the moment not sinning while knowing that a relapse is always in the offing and that you can never let up your vigilance about noticing yourself as a deeply flawed person. You take it one day at a time. Sex, greed, and all the other sins are just a temptation away. You save yourself by so luxuriating in your humiliation that sin will not turn its evil eye upon you one more time.

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15/23- The Age of the Lachrymose

Religion is so powerful a force in social life because believers are united by the emotions they share in common as the inevitable or “natural” feelings that make up the human psyche, however much these may differ from the feelings people in other religions take as inevitable or “natural”.  Emotions are more important than the doctrines to which believers subscribe and we have known since Harnack that doctrines are themselves an unfolding of the emotional plausibility of an insight into the structure of things. The primacy of emotions accounts for the fact that even in our secular age the boundaries that divide up the world are those of religion rather than politics. North America and Europe are dominated by Protestant Christianity; the boundary between Europe and Asia is the border between Catholic Poland and the Catholic parts of Ukraine on the one side and Russian Orthodoxy on the other. The realm of Islam is engaged in a civil war of very long standing between Shiites and Sunnis. Africa and Latin America remain largely Catholic realms. And so on. So let us try to capture the distinctive emotions of Christianity, as those are exhibited by its core story of Jesus and His crucifixion and Resurrection, which make this particular religion stand out from what came before and which remain distinctive to the present day and which sustain this religion whatever the forces that buffet it about.

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14/23:- Reading "Ecclesiastics": Criticism

 There is another level of analysis that can be applied to “Ecclesiastes”. That has to do with how an audience is to take a document, what it will make of it. That is not an empirical question of reader response. It is a question of what a reader who knows something about life as well as literature and criticism will say about a document that takes a particular slant on life, the reader providing the document with the context of life rather than just the context of other literature. A critic’s own sense of life stands in for the common understanding of mankind of its position in the universe. And that, of course, is what has been expected of criticism at least since Dr. Johnson: not just to look at the aesthetics of the work but to evaluate in the context of what a well schooled intellect and a well developed soul will say about whether or not it is humbug or wisdom or any of the stages in between that have been invented by humankind and characterized by critics in terms of ideologies propounded, emotions exposed, stances taken, and so on.

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13/23- Reading "Ecclesiastes": Genre and Translation

What does it mean for desacralization to be completed? One suggestion is that happens when all the little twinkles in the universe that betoken a god have been snuffed out. No more angels; no more miracles. In that case, the task was accomplished by Leibnitz. Another way to think about it is when the idea of cause with its attendant idea that everything needs a cause is also abolished. In that case, Spinoza can be said to have accomplished that. A third view is that desacralization is accomplished when the universe is rid of purpose because that spells the end of not only gods and causes but also of even a functional plan for the universe, a final cause for it. That situation is already described within the Bible. “Ecclesiastes” is the statement of that nihilistic situation which is to be distinguished from the usual renditions of atheism which are willing to accept that there is some wholeness to the universe, just that it does not contain a presiding deity. The difficulty of coming up or even expressing such an extreme position requires the deployment of a number of ways to read a text.

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12/23- The Ten Commandments

The giving of the law on Mount Sinai is as momentous as the parting of the Red Sea even though it might seem to be different because the people might not think they need the law while they certainly knew that they could get across the Red Sea only if there were some sort of miracle. God again solves a problem, but only in extremis and at the last minute. These people could all have perished in the desert or at least have ceased to be recognizable as a people. So some may think that the Ten Commandments are natural in the sense that they are the rules of the road that any people would come up with, the fundamentals of any legal code. But not according to “Exodus”.  They are a particular code not so much in their content as for their categorical nature that associates on a general level issues of torts (not to want someone else’s property) with matters that are criminal (such as the prohibition against murder). And they have been imposed on the Israelites rather than discovered by them, yet another indication that this god is the God of the unnatural, of what is contrary to nature. Law does not “naturally” arise out of its functionality or as a reflection of reason but, according to “Exodus”, has to be imposed on people because they will not otherwise accept it and because it will not otherwise occur to them as a necessary part of going about the business of life.

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11/23- The Horseless Israelites

Only the Egyptians have horses in “Genesis” and “Exodus” though Canaanites do have horses in “Deuteronomy”. (No wonder the people of Israel were reluctant to embark upon an invasion of the Promised Land.)  Solomon had horses, but he is the possessor of what is supposedly a great kingdom. The domestication of horses is therefore the sign of great military power as well as of an advanced civilization. Wendy Doniger reminds us of this in her recent “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. She makes a big deal of the importance of horses, both for commerce and conquest and also as religious sacrifices. By that standard, the Israelites of the Five Books of Moses must be regarded as an inferior people even if they are possessed of what they think to be a superior God, one which is carried around by them, on foot, in an Ark. Remember, they walked rather than rode out of Egypt.

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10/23- The Rape of Dinah

There is another way of appreciating the stories of women in the patriarchal setting if one casts aside a preoccupation with the oppression of women. The stories are legend like tellings of the origins of civilized familial relations, or at least what would seem required to make family relations recognizably current in the court of an oriental despotism such as the Persia of the Exile. How, the redactoress might have imagined, could this primitive people have moved themselves beyond being primitive in those sphere of activities recognized as being under the influence of women?  The redactoress is remarkably insightful about what makes families workable as distinctive units caught up in the larger social structure.

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9/23- Lot and His Daughters

Feminists portray the patriarchal world of the early parts of “Genesis” as one which engaged in the oppression of women. That view makes the elementary mistake of confusing setting with plot. Women do hold subservient positions in the social structures; that is taken for granted by the texts. The important point, however, is that the social arrangements of tribal and nomadic life are described rather than advocated, for to advocate suggests that the arrangements are problematical, which they were not, while, on the other hand, the moral qualities of the people observed are problematical, and are therefore to be judged. That distinction made, the literature from patriarchal times has some very pointed things to say about how men and women get on with one another. Indeed, what George Bernard Shaw said was happening with the post-Victorian “New Woman”, that she was becoming opinionated and feisty and independent and fully able to handle her own intellectual and emotional needs, seems to have been largely accepted by those in Exilic Persia who edited the Old Testament, which gives some additional credence to Harold Bloom’s claim that the primary editor might well have been a woman, and certainly gives credence to the idea that there is something very secular about family relations in patriarchal times. Secularism presumes independence for women in that they are part of the workforce, make their own decisions about marriage, rather than leave that to their families, and have all the weaknesses and strengths of the other sex. Indeed, the absence of human rights or an adequate place in the workforce remains a cardinal indicator of whether, as in Saudi Arabia, a country has not yet emerged into secularism. A world of suppressed women is just what the secular world overcomes, testament to which are all the popular songs of the Twenties and Thirties that made love and marriage freely chosen rather than arranged and so the tangible meaning of a child of an immigrant generation taking his or her place among the modern people of America.

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8/23- A Moral God

The remainder of the tale of Abraham and his immediate family concerns why Abraham is the father of the monotheistic religions. It is because he rejects the last residues of the pagan tradition, as that is represented by the survival of angels as supernatural creatures, connections between this world and the next, or else to the mysterious world that exists in our dreams and fantasies, and replaces it with the awesomeness of a single God who is primarily the embodiment of morality, even as morality is a two edged sword: a claim that even people can make on God and so transcending God as well as being the same thing as God, God also the personage who can demand absolute and yet voluntary obedience, which might seem to be the opposite of morality in that morality is something to which both God and mankind are bound. This sublime and awesome recognition, something beyond the mere holiness of a god, has been made vivid ever since by the story of Sodom and the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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7/23- The Nature of Angels

Angels can be regarded as an essential part of the religious experience rather than just as some pleasing but fey images used to spell out religious experience. That is because angels can be regarded as part of the lively and continuing interchange between the supernatural and the natural, and so are on a par with the idea of the Mass or the revelations still made every once in a while to the leaders of the Mormon Church. If there are angels, then the age of miracles and miraculous creatures is not dead. Angels are just one of the ways God intervenes in the world. God sends particular supernal beings to intervene in individual lives, just as was the case in pagan myths.

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6/23-Longevity

Let us turn to the other major source of information about primitive times that is found in “Genesis”: the connective tissue of genealogy. There is, first of all, a very brief story associated with the name “Lemach”. The story acts as a commentary on the Cain story, showing that the message of God’s forbearance with the first murderer will be lost on generations of people more intent on revenge than on anything else, and so the Cain story is also a false start, because its message does not become part of human consciousness, only a message within the “consciousness” of “Genesis”, as that can be misread by the countless people who will read “Genesis” and claim to take it seriously.

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5/23- Primitive Times

In “Genesis”, right after the story of the Creation, there is the story of Adam and Eve and their family. It is a story often taken as the archetypal account of the human capacity for disobedience and murder. Then, later on, there is the story of Abraham and his descendants told with such density that it contains as much material as a series of novels. That saga carries a set of families into, among other things, encounters with the world civilization of the Egyptians and thereby sets the scene for the epic of liberation provided in “Exodus”. The redactors of “Genesis” fill the time between the richly detailed close ups of Adam and Eve and their family and of Abraham and his family with the more fanciful stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, those set amidst genealogies that, like movie fadeouts, show the passage of time.

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4/23- Noah the Technologist

Noah was a good enough engineer, whether he got the plans from God or dreamed them up himself under the inspiration of God, to correctly execute these very ambitious plans. The plans are spelled out in detail. The ark is to have three levels. It is to be caulked both inside and outside. It is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. The dimensions of the ark are given so distinctly that they serve the literary purpose, of course, of concretizing the description and so make it as if it happened. But this is an interesting set of descriptors. “Genesis” could have said large or very large or as tall as a cedar of Lebanon or some other metaphor for size. “Genesis” does tend to exaggerate when it gives particular numbers, as when it gives the ages of the generations between Adam and Noah. That makes the story legendary: an exaggeration of what might have happened in the past rather than treating the past as having a very different set of processes than does the present, which is what happens when a mythology is created. There seems to be a different reason for concretizing here in the Noah story.

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3/23- Noah and God

 The redactors of “Genesis” were concerned with the development of technology, something that is immediately experienced, pervasive, and stands out from the natural world as a human artifact that confounds otherwise ordinary senses of scale and distance. That is true of even the creation fable that leads off “Genesis”. The creation fable does not offer creation done instantly by a powerful god nor does it relate a story of conflicts between gods that would motivate a god to create the world. Rather, as was suggested previously, it offers the set of processes that have to be performed in a particular sequence whereby the natural world, as humankind would know it, might become established.  What is more fundamental comes earlier in the sequence. The separation between night and day had to proceed the separation of the water from the land and that had to proceed before the animals could be created. God stepped back after each day’s labor to note his accomplishment. So He made the heavens and the earth rather than simply called them into being. Joseph, at the other end of “Genesis”, offers the social technology whereby the results of a famine can be avoided. That, on a more mundane level, is also a story of how to get from here to there, the creation of an agricultural surplus a process and not simply an intrusion.

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