Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is your favorite piece of scripture and why?

This week we asked SacState Philosophy faculty for a favorite scriptural passage and 250 words or less about what makes it meaningful to them. Got some pretty cool stuff.

Kyle Swan: Jawbone of an ass
And when [Samson] came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. 
And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. 
And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men (Judges 15:14-16).
Samson wasn’t a nice person. The things he did to hold the Philistine influence on the Israelites at bay was important for maintaining Israel’s covenant with God, but he wasn’t doing it for that reason. He was doing it because he was kind of a jerk. After all, you’d have to be a jerk to make a semi-clever pun while killing a thousand people (the Hebrew for “ass” and “heaps” is the same word, so he’s saying “with an ass’s jawbone I make asses of them”).

But I like the reminder that, when I say something useful with less than pure motives, God can use the jawbone of an ass.

Phillip Baron: The snow man, by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Scripture is text I turn to looking for orientation and challenge.

I read Wallace Stevens’ brief, deceptively simple poem as an imperative to empathize. It presents a challenge to see the world as another sees it and, at the same time, to see the world as it is. The anthropomorphic figure of the snow man plays the double role of the other and, since a snow man is just an inanimate pile of ice, the objective reality. 

Both adopting the perspective of another and adopting a perspective that sees the world as it is are impossible goals. And yet, the possibility of rational conversation and respect for something greater than oneself depend on the extent to which we aim at these impossible tasks. Literature offers us the opportunity to see from another’s perspective. In “The Snow Man,” Stevens beautifully condenses this challenge.

Timothy Houk: Happy are the pacifists
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God… You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:9, 38-44)
This is one of my favorite passages for a few reasons.

First, it addresses a controversial moral issue: what is the proper response to those who seek to harm us? I can’t make up my mind on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to many kinds of pacifism, which (by my lights) this passage seems to promote. We should love and help everyone—even our “enemies.” However, there are circumstances where I can’t seem to maintain my pacifist intuitions. Violence, even in the context of retributive punishment, sometimes seems very fitting—especially when we consider our responsibilities to protect vulnerable people. There must be some way to coherently resolve this thorny issue, but how?

Second, I’m intrigued by moral reformers—especially those in ancient times where many of the accepted practices can seem barbaric to our present sensibilities. This passage is one of the few ancient writings to promote a kind pacifism. And the speaker, Jesus, not only taught it, but practiced it. He did not resist being unjustly sentenced to death. (Note: there are interesting similarities here between Jesus and Socrates.)

Third, like Aristotle, it connects the moral life with the happy/flourishing/good life. The Greek word for “blessed” (makarios) is similar in meaning to Aristotle’s notion of “happiness” (eudaimonia). In fact, there are some passages where Aristotle uses the two words almost interchangeably. Much of modern moral philosophy fails to maintain this important connection between the moral life and the good life.

Kevin Vandergriff: Moral Prophecy

Under a natural reading of Matthew 25: 34-40, this passage tells us that the Great Judgment will be rendered primarily on the basis of how we have treated the hungry, the alienated, and the sick:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand,
        ‘Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’.
        ‘Then the just will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
       ‘And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”’ (Matt. 25: 34-40)
The ipsissima vox of Jesus is informing his listeners, among other things, that they will not be judged on the correctness of their systematic theology, or their degree of adherence to cultic requirements, but on how they have treated ‘the least of these’.

There are two reasons this passage is one of my favorites.

As an aspiring effective altruist, I identify deeply with this passage because it implies that the supererogatory is actually obligatory.

Moreover, as a theist, I find some support for my theistic belief in this very passage. Why? Because it is antecedently more likely on the assumption that theism is true, rather than on the assumption that naturalism or otherism is true (cf Paul Draper), that there would be “moral prophets”—those persons who perceive objective moral truths ahead of their time. Given the religio-historical context of first-century Palestine, along with the inherent biological selfishness of human organisms, Matthew 25:34-30 is some evidence that Jesus was a moral prophet, and by extension, some evidence for theism.

Jonathan Chen: I like having friends  
The Master (Kongzi) says, "To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned -- is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar -- is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand -- is this not the mark of a virtuous person?  (Analects 1.1)
One interpretation of this passage by Li Chong is that these three activities refer to the stages of learning: mastering the basics, discussing them with your peers, and finally becoming a teacher to others.

The cultivation of character and moral education are central themes in the Analects, and I think it Kongzi plainly lays it out in this passage. What's less important is obtaining knowledge, while what's more important is exercising it.

To be honest, I just like this passage because I think it's nice to have friends. But to have friends visit from afar? Even better!

David Corner: Thou art that

In the Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1, Uddalaka speaks to his son Svetaketu:
1. 'In the beginning,' my dear, 'there was that only which is, one only, without a second. Others say, in the beginning there was that only which is not, one only, without a second; and from that which is not, that which is was born.
2. 'But how could it be thus, my dear?' the father continued. 'How could that which is, be born of that which is not? No, my dear, only that which is, was in the beginning, one only, without a second.
Uddalaka seems to be arguing that the universe cannot have come from nothing, and the implication of this is that there has always been something. In this case that something is Brahman, which the Hindu tradition identifies with sat-chit-ananda: Being, consciousness, and pure bliss or unconditional happiness. Later Uddalaka will tell Svetaketu, “Tat tvam asi”- You are That.

The passage is interesting for many reasons. First, this is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, probably written sometime around 600 BCE, and is a religious scripture that contains a philosophical argument. Secondly, because Brahman is understood as Ultimate Reality but is not (under the mainstream interpretation) identified with God, it is atheistic. Also, it seems to counter some modern arguments for the existence of God, such as the Kalaam Argument, which agree that the universe cannot have come from nothing, but which think this implies that there must be a God who created the universe… out of nothing. (One may be forgiven for wondering, if it violates the standards of good explanation to say that the universe came out of nothing, how it helps to say that God created the universe out of nothing.)

But it is the relevance of passage this to the human situation that is most interesting. According to the Chandogya, the Self is, at its most fundamental level, eternal, self-sufficient, and ecstatically happy. The path to overcoming suffering is to realize one’s own true nature.

Thomas Pyne: Divine inefficiency

In Wilton Barnhardt’s 1992 novel Gospel, a search for a fictional lost ‘Gospel of Matthias,’ written by the Thirteenth Apostle (who replaced the traitorous Judas), Barnhardt stops his narrative at times to provide chunks of the gospel itself.

Matthias criticizes Jude, one of the original Twelve, for not spreading Jesus’ Good News like the others. Indeed, Jude even avoids seeing pilgrims who visit him.
“I do not feel good about it now, but I am afraid I was rather unpleasant to Jude and I asked if…he had brought as much as a single soul into the Kingdom-to-come. 
Jude gave me the brotherly kiss of peace. He then said, ‘Is it not possible that the soul Our Lord intended to save was mine?’”

Leibniz was likely wrong in claiming that the universe is God’s solution to an infinitely complex optimization problem:
God has chosen the most perfect world, that is, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and richest in phenomena, as might be a line in geometry whose construction is easy and whose properties and effects are extremely remarkable and widespread. (Discourse on Metaphysics, 6)
Reality seems far too extravagantly ‘wasteful’ to be the result of such considerations. Maybe God created the entire 13 billion-year old expanse of galaxies in order to have a relationship of love and covenant with a bunch of jumped-up primates on one small planet.God doesn’t think in general concepts. Unlike us, He doesn’t have to

Saray Ayala-L√≥pez:  Life in drag

I choose a fragment from The Politics of Reality, by Marilyn Frye, for being both a guide and a revelation. This book guided me into feminist philosophy, and it revealed to me that questions about sex, gender and sexual orientation that I took to be (too) personal are political and you can (and should!) philosophize about them.
It is wonderful that homosexuals and lesbians are mocked and judged for “playing butch-femme roles” and for dressing in “butch-femme drag,” for nobody goes about in full public view as thoroughly decked out in butch and femme drag as respectable heterosexuals when they are dressed up to go out in the evening, or to go to church, or to go to the office. Heterosexual critics of queers’ “role-playing” ought to look at themselves in the mirror on their way out for a night on the town to see who’s in drag - The answer is, everybody is.
Frye writes this as part of her critique of the obsession we have with announcing our sex/gender. I like how she (mockingly) calls attention to something familiar and seemingly uninteresting (heterosexual, cisgender people going out in the evening), and reveals its covert paraphernalia, its unrecognized carnivalesque character.

Saying that everybody is in drag is as liberating as terrifying. Wearing a sex and a gender is a lot of work. Wearing them well is a constant struggle. We probably dedicate more time to those tasks than to anything else in our lives.

Russell DiSilvestro: Do not merely listen 

When this week’s Dance of Reason question first went out, I responded with Matthew 4:1-11, in part because that passage contains an interesting challenge to all of us who seek to answer the DR question itself: be careful what Scripture you quote, and how you quote it, since even a devilish person may quote a scripture quite cleverly.

But while that passage is good for other reasons, I realized it’s not actually one of my favorites. However, it links to favorites in three quick steps.

First, as James 2:19 says, the devil not only talks a clever bit of scripture, he apparently even believes some correct theology—and yet his attitude is all wrong.

Second, as James 1:19-27 says, the difference between hearing correct theology and acting it out is the difference between “worthless” and “pure” religion:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Third, Matthew 7:24-27 draws a similar contrast between (merely) hearing and (actually) doing the words of Jesus, which marks a difference between wisdom and its opposite.

Hearing, belief, attitude, action. The last two matter, too. These passages from James and Matthew are favorites of mine.

Mathias Warnes: The Orphic hymn to Physis incense—aromatic herbs 
O Physis, resourceful mother of all,
industrious and rich divinity,
oldest of all, queen…
nocturnal, radiant with constellations,
light-bringing, irrepressible,
you move swiftly,
your steps are noiseless,
O pure marshal of the gods,
O end that has no end.
All partake of you,
you alone partake of no one.
Self-fathered, hence fatherless,
Virtue itself, joyous, great,
you are accessible, O nurse of flowers,
you lovingly mingle and twine,
you lead and rule,
you bring life and nourishment to all…

Two related scriptures I often return to, on account of their invocative beauty and philosophic insights, are Athanassakis’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, and Majercik’s translations of the extant fragments of the Chaldean Oracles. They are delightful to read in Greek! Both are also key documents for understanding Neo-Platonic philosophy, which frequently quotes from and highly esteems these texts. Dated (roughly) to the 2nd century C.E., but possibly containing material that is far older, it is customary for scholars to devalue the literary value of the Orphic hymns. 

I disagree with this assessment. A hymn, from the Greek hymnos, is a song of praise and celebration. In this Orphic hymn to Physis, I wonder if we hear echoes of a more henotheistic goddess-oriented religiosity that seeks our deep existential structures in medias res (in the midst of things) and as natura naturans (nature naturing). Although third in the position of arch-divinities, alongside the Paternal and Demiurgic Intellect, the Chaldean Oracles, which are attributed to Julian the Theurgist, nevertheless praise Hekate, i.e. the magic of nature, as Rhea-Cybele, partner to Kronos and queen of the festive procession, with the words: “On the back of this goddess boundless Nature is suspended” for “Truly Rhea is the source and stream of the blessed intellectual realities.” 

I do find the intellectual, as well as historical and human value, of the Orphic Hymns and Chaldean Oracles to be significantly higher than is usually supposed.

G. Randolph Mayes: The parable of the talents

Versions of this parable occur in Matthew and Luke. A master leaving on a long journey entrusts each of three servants with considerable sums of money. The amounts vary in proportion to the master's opinion of each of the servants. On his return, the servants entrusted with the two largest sums have doubled the master's investment and he rewards them handsomely. But the one given the least has simply kept it buried during the master's absence. Enraged, the master seizes the original sum and hands it to the most successful servant saying:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
As a child, I was surprised that Jesus would tell this story in an approving way. A good master would have been pleased that a servant he held in such low esteem did not squander the money completely (as, e.g., the Prodigal Son who was forgiven and welcomed home by his father.)

A common interpretation of this story is that spiritual wealth and poverty work in much the same way. If you have lots of faith to begin with, you see evidence of God's goodness and mercy wherever you look, and you grow spiritually rich. But if you begin spiritually poor, you are likely to live angry and scared, and lose what little faith you have.

Makes sense.

It doesn't answer my childish question though. Whether it's money, faith, or social standing, I still think starting out with less is punishment enough. If there are going to be transfer payments, they should flow in the opposite direction.

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