27 October 2007

Philosophy Class (Week 8)

We've moved from the Old Testament to the New, by way of Isaiah. The primary focus was on the idea of prophecy, to consider from a philosophical standpoint whether to think of it as "the future influencing the past" or "the past influencing the future." Dr. Levenson never took a committed stance on this, except perhaps momentarily, to get discussion going, and then he'd swap stances. My overall impression is that he likes the idea of the future influencing the past, but that doesn't really bear on whether he thinks it happened or not.

The passage in question is Isaiah 52-53, The Suffering Servant, which seems eerily similar to the life of Jesus in the gospels. I have to take issue with one of the supposed similarities: "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness" as a reference to his appearance after crucifixion. Uh, if Catholic crucifixes are anything to go by, he was still recognizably human (or in human form, if you prefer). In essence, the passage is a description of the Judaic practice of animal sacrifice, but applied to a human, sometimes called "The Suffering Servant."

Had this passage been relatively unknown and obscure in Jesus' day, I might be more willing to consider the idea of it as prophecy. But it was well known. It was a part of the community consciousness. So, ignoring all else, if a well known "man of god" dies horribly, this is a natural passage to turn to for an explanation. You could also argue for a stronger possibility, of deliberately "setting things up" to match up, but that seems less likely to me.

Then on Friday, we started discussing Matthew. We made it as far as the virgin birth. Dr. Levenson was very careful here to distinguish discussing ideas from discussing facts. His primary focus was on whether a virgin birth was, in itself, necessary to Christianity. Not surprisingly, the Christians in the class said it was, while the rest of us were more open to exploring the possibility that it wasn't. Essentially, they took the position that Jesus had to be perfect, and so his literal, uh, "biological" father had to be God. However, this is far from the only possibility. "Adoptionists and other non-Trinitarians considered Jesus to be a natural-born man and generally held his baptism to be the point at which he came to embody the Holy Spirit." (Wikipedia). That makes much more sense to me.

There are two likely reasons for adopting the virgin birth as doctrine (regardless of whether it was true). The one we discussed in class involved making it more acceptable to Greek and Roman cultures. They have tons of stories of gods impregnating women, and the resulting offspring were always extraordinary. The second did not come up in class. It's the complete and utter disdain that Christianity has for human nature: fallen, sinful, evil, imperfect. "No, the savior can't be human because humans are horrible, nasty creatures (never mind that we ourselves are human; we hate ourselves, too)." It's just not good enough to have a human who received God's power and blessing at his baptism, at least not for people who despise humanity.

I can't remember what book it was... it may have been by Kent Nerburn. I remember that there was a Native American talking to a Caucasian. The gist of the talk was that it was important not to hate your own people, because that would lead to hating yourself. A lot of traditional Christian doctrine embodies a horrid contempt for humanity, for its own people. No wonder the savior can't be human: they'd have to hate him, too. It's my opinion that this is the true tragedy of mainstream Christianity. It emphasizes all of humanity's failings, and attributes any observed strengths to God. This is entirely the wrong way to look at things, especially if you want to be stay sane and not lapse into severe depression.

I'll take the Eastern idea that "from the outset, your own nature is pure," over a litany of how horrid humanity is any day. It's not that there's no work to be done; it's that you're already where you need to be, if you can find where you really are. Who you really are. The person, the human, that lives under your skin and behind your eyes. Mainstream Christianity tends to impose a view-of-self on its adherents that prevents them from ever seeing themselves for who/what/all that they really are, or really can be. Sad.

(I should probably mention that reading Matthew was actually worthwhile, even if we haven't discussed much of it yet. There are some very nice passages in there. I begin to see why Thomas Jefferson thought it worthwhile to compile the passages he found worthwhile.)

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