Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Can You Please Choose Somebody Else For A Change?

That is the old joke. Abe Moskowitz comes to heaven and meets God, and he asks Him: "Is it true that the Jews are the chosen people?" And the voice of God booms: "Yes, Mr. Moskowitz, it is true, you are the chosen people!" And Moskowitz says: "Then could you please choose somebody else for a change?"
That, in a word, is the problem of theodicy, and Bart D. Ehrman has just added his proverbial two cents to a long list of explorations of this issue. To phrase it more formally, as Ehrman does in even more detail: If God is the Creator and is Almighty and just, then why would He allow suffering? And Ehrman heaps on the evidence. He could also have referred the reader to the year 2000 special edition of The Economist, where the editorial reminded us that the twentieth century had been the bloodiest on record. Progress anyone?

If you read it with any kind of background in A Course In Miracles, this book has to strike you as a dramatic recap of just why you must slam right into the wall of this question, as long as you think God created the world. The Course's clarification of this point is that God created us as spirit and absolutely one with Him, and that the rest of it is just a nightmare, a delusion, a projection, a mis-creation that emanates from the separation thought, and not at all His Creation. The sole basis of the seeming reality of the world lies in the one impossible speculation: What if I were separate? What if, indeed.

The results are quite absurd, as Ehrman duly points out by making the world good and real and treating us to endless descriptions of suffering from the Bible and from history, as well as his own personal experience. However, under the Course's approach, that experience of suffering is just our frenzied imagination run amok with our impossible thoughts, the reality of which has no firm foundation except in our stubborn belief that would make it so. A mind is a powerful thing, and that is why in the end there is hope, for if we can make a mistake, we can also fix it, by getting the right guidance and learning that we are not a helpless victim at all. But as with Ehrman, the defense--let's blame somebody else--makes sense from a psychological standpoint. At the beginning of the story when the idea is fresh, we only have God to blame. Later, when we carry it to logical extremes and have the choice of an unlimited number of hapless individuals mirroring the same thought ad infinitum, we can and we do blame everybody and their neighbor.

Meanwhile, as to studying the Bible, Ehrman's story is fascinating. For he lost his fundamentalism a long time ago, as he became a serious Bible scholar, and the wonderful thing is that he has shared his voyage of discovery with us, starting with his evolution from fundamentalism towards a more critical attitude. But his current book describes his grappling with the very dualistic biblical God, Whom again, as Course students, we would look upon for the most part as an expression of the ego - He has His good days and His bad days, and beware of the bad days! Hence, while the author has moved from his earlier fundamentalist literalism about the language, the form of the Bible, towards greater freedom, to appreciate that neither the form of it nor the beliefs it reflects are any kind of a coherent whole, he is still stuck in literalism about the content of the book on another level, and hence he has now slammed solidly into the wall that is known as theodicy, and he has sent us his accident report. I for one enjoy his willingness to do an honest self-examination, and to evolve his position, not to mention the liberal sharing of his personal development with his readers. It is a wakeup call.

What is curious is that Ehrman, who does such a marvelous job in his book Lost Christianities, by documenting how early Christianity was not at all the coherent whole that people would like to believe it was, here sticks to a fairly rigid regimen of reading of the Bible and never once even suspects that it can also be read on another level. Evidently, he is familiar with some gnostic literature, but it does not seem to occur to him that some of the gnostic speculation that the God of Genesis, who created the world, must be an inferior sort of a God and not the true God, should perhaps be entertained seriously. Given how he is evidently bothered by the Bible, one might hope he would at least entertain such a possibility ever so briefly, after all he describes brilliantly how apocalypticism was an ancient attempt to deal with theodicy. The only reason the gnostics ever came up with that idea in the first place, is that, from Jesus, they did understand God to be a loving God, not to mention that His Kingdom was not of this earth, so why would He create one in the first place? It did a lot for them in looking at the problems of evil and suffering differently.
Having said that, if one were to read Ehrman's exploration with a different mindset, as the Course might suggest to us, we might understand that, while some themes in the Bible may contain profound spiritual truths, other parts reflect the ego's dualistic experience of God, which sometimes shows up as good God, vs. angry God, and other times as God vs. the Devil. And thus it becomes very clear and instructive just how large parts of the Bible portray the ego's pathological killer God and not at all the loving Father Whom Jesus represents in the New Testament. And yet we do feel spoken to, for some part of us knows, that we who are reading this are the chosen people, but we do not realize how and why the dualism and the hell and damnation--not to mention the need to "fear God"--are the projection of our own choice of the separation. After all, in a symbolic sense, Israel is nothing else but the Sonship in the separation, lost in exile in a world which is not our home, and in terror of a vengeful God who is merely the projection of our attack on Heaven and a completely logical outflow of preferring the separation.
Similarly, the frequent theme of the "adulterous generation" really does ring true because deep down we know our own faithlessness to who and what we really are. And unless we turn to the Internal Teacher of the Course, who represents to us our Loving Father and the personification of our Sonship to us (no one comes to the Father except through him!), and who thus truly is the truth, the way, and the life. In the biblical representation there rarely is relief from the fear, except in the examples of forgiveness and various assertions in the teaching of Jesus. Paul in the New Testament quickly corrects that and reverts back to fire and brimstone whenever he can. So also the stories of Baal worship in the Old Testament merely symbolize how the ego leads us into the dominion of oppressive gods, but the vengeance of the one God is, again, only our projection, of our guilt over our own preference.

There are many other elements which should make us think that the material is symbolic, not literal. There is the issue of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, and the twelve in terms of the Zodiac simply represent "all of us," in the sense that it represents all the possibilities. What could be more clearly symbolic! There are many more connections where that came from. There is also the symbolism of many names, which equally should tip us off that: 1) these are not histories--about someone else in some other time--these are myths that want to represent a truth to us now, in the sense of the typical fairy tale opening, "Once up on a time," and 2) the value of the stories lies in the themes they represent, not in the specifics of the story. The ego always obfuscates matters by confusing the staging for the plot. Again, from the Course's standpoint, once we understand how it is an ego-ploy to "accuse" God of creating the world, let alone humans, Ehrman's cry, "In the Bible, aren't humans made in the image of God?" (page 189) would be solved.

Ehrman in his book remains stuck in the literalist view and does not entertain the symbolic view, which opens up if we get above the battlefield and look at our perceptions with Jesus and begin to understand the dynamics of projection and the fact that, in the world (where we think we are), it all comes to us in parables. One wonders why generations of people stay stuck in this view of the Bible, even though Jesus is repeatedly quoted as saying, that if we do not look at it with him, it all comes to us in parables, but if we join with him, he will explain it all to us. (c.f. Mk. 4:34). Once we do move in this direction though, even the most fearful parts of the Bible could make good reading as a way of appreciating the insanity of the ego.
In the discussion of apocalyptic thought some of the psychological understanding which the Course offers could again clarify a lot. It was not just some arbitrary literary "invention" to entertain speculative thinking about the end of times, rather, it is a fundamental aspect of the ego's "dynamics" which seeks to rob us of the present with guilt over the past and fear of the future, so that, to paraphrase the Course, at no point is individuality actually real at all (c.f. ACIM:T-2.I.2:1-2,  T-6.V.A.2, T-18.VII.3:1). On the whole the discussion of apocalyptic thinking makes clear also what the results are of the level confusion, which reduces the coming of the Kingdom to an event in linear time, which again is only a projection of the ego's fears, and an anthropomorphic distortion of what Jesus said, as would also be clear by a juxtaposition of some of the Thomas sayings, where Jesus makes it very clear that the Kingdom is here now, except we don't see it yet, which again chimes in beautifully with the Course's notion of "a journey without distance to a goal that has never changed" (ACIM:T-8.VI.9:7). In the course of all this we can only come to appreciate more deeply what a powerful job Christianity did in completely obliterating abstract thinking, which has been so powerfully present in other traditions such as Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta) and Buddhism, and when some gnostics took a stab at it, it was run out of town as heresy. Curiously, even in the presence of the world view of quantum mechanics, and modern psychology, quite aside from the Course, this book stops at observing the patent impossibility of looking at God and the Bible in the Christian way.

On another level, however, the larger picture of the Bible does make sense, if we appreciate it on a more symbolic level, i.e. as parables. As Adam, we do choose duality and fall asleep--and, as the Course says, "nowhere does it refer to him waking up..." (ACIM:T-2.I.3:6). The waking-up part only comes with Jesus who asks us to follow him to His Kingdom not of this (dream!)- world. But, for the most part, he was badly misunderstood, and Paul quickly dragged him back down to "reality," making it seem as though he was to come to us, as in Paul's understanding of the Second Coming, instead of us going to him, which is what he asked. Paul in effect left him nailed to the cross, and later abandoning us by going to Heaven by himself. And emergent Christianity sold us on the idea that he was late coming back, so that, as adopted sons, for us there is in the meantime little else to do but to feel guilty, try to be good little Christians, and hope for the best, unless, that is, there might be another way of looking at this picture.
On the whole this aspect of the book shows clearly how Ehrman still thinks like a Christian, even as he protests that he longer can be a Christian, for again and again he quotes the contradictions in the Bible, which might go away, if one seriously allowed a critical thinking of the Bible, in which it turns out to be a seriously flawed patchwork of thought, stories and ideas about man's relationship with God, which coalesced together as a book through a highly capricious set of historical circumstances, so why stick to reading it as if it was a consistent whole? In particular the increasing dualism in  "quotations" (or should we just say "attributions")  of Jesus,  might be resolved once we understand how the Jesus of Thomas was a non-dualist, and the Jesus of the Pauline world of Christianity was a dualist and a literalist--or is that really Paul we are talking about? And along those same lines it makes sense that Ehrman spends a lot of time on Paul's reasoning as to why the resurrection was a bodily, and not a spiritual event. This is the same Ehrman, who unlike many others, dismisses the Thomas gospel, where Jesus sounds so very different from his Pauline incarnation in the canonical gospels, as a fraud instead of letting it open his eyes as to why Jesus really did teach something very different  before being edited by Paul. In other words, as long as we dogmatically assume the Pauline redaction of Jesus as a given, we never will be open to what Jesus said before Paul came along, even though it makes historical sense to do so, since "Paul" only came along after Jesus had already died, and said all that we have been told about him saying, and the question of who is saying it deserves more attention.

One final example of Ehrman's being stuck in Christianity, albeit a non-Christian Christianity, is his treatment of Revelation, in which he points out that the author of the book clearly was concerned not with prognosticating our future, but with his own imminent expectation of doom. If the book were thus read psychologically, it is a graphic example of the perennial ego-principle of the expectation of doom as the necessary corollary to the assumption of individual existence, namely that death eventually proves the seeming reality of such  unreal existence. So psychologically death is the ego's trump card, and that is the underlying appeal of Revelation for all ages. It portrays the ego's apocalyptic expectations. So that, when, on the basis of his literalistic (dare I say "Christian"?) reading he says, "Moreover, the fervent expectation that we must be living at the end of time has proved time after time--every time--to be wrong,"  in fact when this apocalyptic dynamic is properly understood as a projection that results from the basic ego-dynamic, it should be evident that it is a perfect expression of the underlying ego fear, that its game is up, it is living on borrowed time--because it is!
On the whole, then, besides the fact that I've enjoyed Ehrman's recounting of his journey thus far, I can only hope for his sake that he does not stay in sack and ashcloth at the wailing wall, which is this book. Just as with Job's friends, the ego's witnesses only reflect back to us the reality of our suffering and the injustice that is being done to us, not to mention their judgment of us, and unless and until we get tired of the ego's dirge (ACIM:P-2.VI.1:5), our "friends" won't quit talking to us (for that's what we have them for). And not until they finally fall silent will we even begin to hear the Voice for God, symbolized in the book of Job by " Elihu"  (Job's fourth friend, whose name meant "This one is my God"), and who shows up at the end of the story, at which point Job begins to hear the Voice of God. But we won't get tired of the ego's dirge (ACIM:P-2.VI.1:5) until we look at it with Jesus, for only his love and forgiveness takes the sting out of it, and in the end drains the air out of the ego's balloon, so that it can "...fade into the nothingness from which it came..." (ACIM:M-13.1:2).
Some aspects of the book are quite funny and illustrative of what the Course teaches us about denial, e.g. when the author describes his experiences in social situations, when he tells people he's writing a book about suffering and they fall silent. His description of the reactions is priceless, and... no surprise! Clear proof that the ego does not want us to look at it honestly! In the end, though, his conclusion is that the best we can do is to make the world a better place, so welcome to the New Age. Self-examination, unpopular ever since Socrates was put to death for promoting it, has been unpopular in Western tradition. For those who are otherwise inclined, there is the Course, and the Work (by Byron Katie), pointing in the other direction, towards taking responsibility for our projections, and changing ourselves, which, while it is not a trivial task, is infinitely easier than changing everyone else, let alone the whole world. Jesus had a cute saying that we could not hope to help our brother get the splinter out of his eye, lest we remove the moat out of our own eye first...

One interesting little detail of this book is that Ehrman seems to subscribe to a chronology in which Mark was composed after Paul started to write, which I tend not to believe, but having said that, there unquestioningly are some very Pauline lines in Mark, though to me it seems they are not as much an integral part of the story as Ehrman suggests. Depending on how you read those passages, it seems to me that those Pauline interpretations, which theologize the events, could easily be lifted out without compromising the story.

Postscript: Since I posted this note, I went to hear Bart Ehrman speak at St. Bart's in Manhattan, at their Center for Religious Inquiry. He signed my copy of the book. In a brief conversation I suggested to him that he had joined the club of Thomas Jefferson, and that the "Jefferson Bible" really was his Bible at this point, considering that Jefferson considered himself a materialist, but had high regard for Jesus as a teacher of morality. Clearly he had not thought of that, but upon a brief moment of reflection he could not help but agree. Not a bad club to belong to, I guess.
(Note the discussion of the biblical Job in this light is based on the article " Beproeving," [Eng. " Temptation"], by J. W. Kaiser, in the bundle Mysterien van Jezus in ons Leven, Synthese, The Hague, Holland).

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tradition and Textual Criticism

And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. (Mk 3:33-34)

One of the interesting aspects of the emergence of Pursah's Gospel of Thomas is that it makes us think again of the whole business of textual tradition and textual corruption. One of the fundamental issues with the world's misunderstanding of the teachings of Jesus lies in the problem of reporting. To begin with there is the issue of contemporaneous reporting: there is none.

However, by studying the problems of textual transmission even a little bit, we can definitely begin to intuit a lot about the problems of transmission, particularly if we take into account that before the written stage, there was a period of purely oral transmission. The way Pursah pares back the Thomas Gospel to its bare essence in her version of it is fairly instructive. The contraction of sayings 6 & 14 into one makes immediate intuitive sense if you read them in the Nag Hammadi version and then compare it to the form in Pursah's Gospel of Thomas. Realistically however, we need to understand that there is no authority to say that Pursah's version is authentic as she claims, other than your own inner guidance that could make you feel comfortable with her text. In this regard there is no external authority to validate the apparent facts. Having said that, many of her edits do seem to make immediate intuitive sense.

Another contribution of the Pursah version which makes intuitive sense, lies in the fact that she systematically strips out the "Jesus said" and therefore radically alters the nature of the presentation from story-telling mode, into one of direct address. The text speaks directly to the reader, and therefore through the text Jesus speaks directly to us, in a manner not dissimilar from A Course In Miracles. A lot of Pursah's changes up to that point could be viewed on the basis of the commonly understood issues of oral tradition, similar to the telephone game, where people whisper a story in each others ear, and the last person tells it out loud to the group, at which point the originator shows the original written story which the first person read, and the transition tells you a lot about the changes along the way. Simple experiments like that may cure us of any notion of the reliability of oral tradition. Scriptural corruptions per se are easier to deal with because once you have multiple texts, you can compare, and you can decide which ones are older, which ones have a shorter path of transmission etc., and the more you can reconstruct this, the more you can feel comfortable that it is reasonable to attempt to filter out an original text, an authoritative text, which you can pretty much vouch for at that point. However, there is another dimension, which Pursah implicitly appeals to in her comments.

This other dimension is understanding. Pursah's presentation in DU sets us up to explore that dimension with her comments in that book: that it should be intuitively obvious which of the 114 sayings should be original sayings of Jesus, and which contain evident contradictions. In Your Immortal Reality she subsequently indulges us by actually giving us her version, and she is pretty emphatic that this is how it originally sounded, except that it would have been in Aramaic. In the process, however, she has invited us to get in touch with our own understanding of and intuition about the material. This appeal is a crucially important part of the process, and should also make us do a double take about the issues surrounding oral tradition discussed above.

The very important difference is about "understanding," as alluded to in the quote from Mark with which I opened this comment. The point is that individually Jesus explained everything to his apostles. And so also did the teaching style of the apostles doubtlessly develop with their growing understanding. And they in turn taught from their own understanding, in a manner similar to Jesus, in which they might have reused images, stories and words they heard Jesus say, or they might simply make up their own story, based on the situation they were in, or their own life experience, but focused on transmitting to their interlocutor or their audience, the spirit or meaning, the content of Jesus's teaching. And thus the essential point is that the teaching was about expressing the truth Jesus taught, in a way that the audience could hear. Once we begin to fathom this dimension, it should be readily obvious to us that the whole point is about transmitting meaning, so that many corruptions in form, may not be corruptions at all if they adequately convey the meaning.

To students of the Course this should be obvious, for the miracle is really the instrument of teaching, and we realize that as we learn to choose the miracle, Jesus really is taking us by the hand, and making us understand in the circumstances of our life what his teaching of love means to us, right here, right now, in our own life. The miracle in that sense is the definition of the teaching moment in which Jesus explains "everything" to us when we are alone with him, i.e. when we drop the interpretations of the ego, and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit instead. Through those experiences we come to understand in the context of our own specific experiences the meaning of what Jesus teaches, then, now, and always. Therefore, the validation of Pursah's proposed "Kernel" of the Thomas Gospel lies only in that inner experience of consistency which altogether speaks for itself. And so, again, the role Pursah plays serves to underscore one of the principal tenets of the Course namely that its purpose is not to become the basis for a new cult or religion, but rather to help some people find their Internal Teacher (ACIM:Preface). Pursah in effect refers us to our Internal Teacher first to validate the soundness of the kernel of the Thomas Gospel which she proposes. Besides inviting us to validate her preferred text in this fashion, she also emphasizes that in understanding it, we should not seek external authority, but learn to become our own ministers and teachers, by letting the Thomas sayings speak to us, and developing our own understanding, as we let the spirit work through us.