Thursday, December 18, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Mission Sermon

As I poke my way through the New Testament for what seems the umpteenth time - but really isn’t - I realize how little of it I retained in the past. For instance, pre-born-again, I’m certain that I never read much of it at all, and what little I did read was probably suggested by a religious associate. Once I undertook the verse-by-verse reading that launched me into deconversion, I walked away with a general impression that Jesus was a good dude, but his ministry was based on a bad dude. Or a non-existent dude, depending on how analytical I felt the day that I examined the dudeology. Over decades, non-existent dude overwhelmed bad dude as the operative concept, making Jesus increasingly irrelevant.

Today, I continue my general comments on the New Testament, still without attempting to analyze it closely. I’m just laying down the general form of the books. I have a few points that I’ll make when certain passages disturb the force, but I’m not doing this to purposely point out inconsistencies on a broad scale like a counter-apologist or critic might. I’m just organizing my impressions so that I can elaborate on them further down the road, should I desire.

The Sermon on the Mount ends in Matthew Chapter 7, so we begin Chapter 8 with Jesus healing a leper and performing other miracles and acts of charity. More of the same in Chapter 9. There are good words by Jesus, and miracles, but these chapters appear to be an interlude. I’m using this Wikipedia article to help me better detect the structure of Matthew.

The Mission Sermon - or Mission Discourse - begins in Chapter 10.

This discourse is directed to the twelve apostles who are named in Matthew 10:2-3. In the discourse Jesus advises them how to travel from city to city, carry no belongings and to preach only to Israelite communities. He tells them to be wary of opposition, but have no fear for they will be told what to say to defend themselves when needed: "For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you"

The whole spiel is done by the end of the chapter, and includes many memorable sayings. I have a question, though. Jesus is instructing his disciples - the apostles. What part if this is useful for the rank believer? I can imagine a theologist saying that all Christians are charged with spreading the good word, but I’ll be interested to see how this thought evolves through the rest of the testament.

At this point, we can detect trouble brewing:

(KJV) Matthew 10:4 Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. Judas and his future role are mentioned.

Chapters 11 & 12 serve as a segue into the third discourse by treating us to some John the Baptist and some Pharisees action. Another indication of the trouble to come:

(KJV) Matthew 12:14 Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

Knowing that Matthew has a general structure is really helpful and interesting, particularly when trying to establish whether (and then how) Matthew relates to the other Gospels. A peek ahead to the Wikipedia article on the upcoming Gospel of Mark lets us compare “literary styles” of the two. Matthew has a seven-part structure, whereas Mark appears much less organized:

There is no agreement on the structure of Mark.[20] There is, however, a widely recognised break at Mark 8:26–31: before 8:26 there are numerous miracle stories, the action is in Galilee, and Jesus preaches to the crowds, while after 8:31 there are hardly any miracles, the action shifts from Galilee to gentile areas or hostile Judea, and Jesus teaches the disciples.

I feel that by the time I sketch out my impressions of Mark, the need to discuss the Synoptic Problem will be nearly unavoidable. Pre-born-again, it was easy for me to assume that Matthew was written first, followed by Mark, Luke and John. Post-born-again, someone (I have no idea who it was) pointed out to me that scholars think that Mark appears to have been written first. Over the decades, I’ve read enough about it to be able to see how they arrived at that conclusion. The relatively visible structure of Matthew somewhat illustrates how an earlier compilation of sayings and stories could have been re-organized.

I’ll give the "Parabolic Discourse" a go next.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Sermon On The Mount

Before I proceed to whiz through the New Testament, some background is in order.

First, blogging about the NT, even as shallowly as I’m doing here, serves a purpose. It allows me to organize my coarsest-grained understanding of the books, and put them in a place where I can update them and refer to them - over, and over and over.

Second, it serves as an autobiography of sorts. An individual’s thoughts about their place in the universe may include a belief in the supernatural. It appears that this is very common. If I sound too blasé in making the shocking previous claim, it’s because I’m trying to be un-emotional about this. Some people believe that which can be observed is all that there is. These are - without getting into the finer points - naturalists. Some people, in addition to that which can be observed, believe that there are other objects that can affect this world without necessarily behaving in accordance with natural laws. In the most general sense, these people are “supernaturalists”. Mister Obvious has spoken.

I imagine that, absent any prompting from family or friends during my infancy and childhood, I would be prone to belief in some vague “ground-of-all-being” type supernatural realm. Some pantheistic concept that implies that we are all part of one transcendent object that we ought to revere and revel in.

I also imagine that my mom (mostly) planted the thought that there was “God” in heaven looking over us if we were good. Once I started to attend Sunday School, “God” was fleshed out in the form of YHWH and Jehovah.

There’s no need to over-analyze this. Teen age and young adulthood did not change this mind set much, and a brief “born again” period left me unscarred, but newly inclined to be skeptical of people quoting the Bible. So let’s see what happens starting in Matthew chapter 5.

Chapter 5 seems like a candidate for the most-quoted Bible chapter ever. It is, of course, the famous Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus in his own words bestowing blessings, advising the faithful on how to carry and display their faith - it is beautiful, moving literature. I can imagine, without claiming that it actually happened to me personally, that someone looking for salvation need only read Matt 1:1 through Matt 5:48 to become filled with the spirit and become born-again. As we noted in my last post, the first four chapters are sparse and fairly uncomplicated. Chapter 5 is a soaring sermon for believers, it could truly transform you. Read it once, you’re a believer. There is, however, some weird shit. Lets look.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

No problem with verse 12 above - Jesus seems to be wrapping up a benediction. But WTF is verse 13 about? I probably read this chapter 5 or 10 times, and I bet that verse 13 didn’t bother me until recently. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. And why is "salt of the earth" good?

Jesus gets back to business in verse 14 by telling his disciples that they are the light of the world, and sprinkles some truly memorable phrases in the following verses. Then it gets weird again.

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So proceeds a stretch of teaching and commandments that - if you find the Old Testament repulsive like I do - makes you realize that Jesus is selling the same snake oil as that reprehensible old twat YHWH. This sounds harsh, but it is truly my reaction. As a young man, I became born-again, read the New Testament verse-by-verse, and was overjoyed at the soaring beauty of what Jesus had to say. Then I read the Old Testament. Full stop. Much has been written about what a vile monster YHWH is, no need for me to recount it. Let it be said that I now felt that I’d saw Yahweh’s balls off with a rusty nail file if I ever saw him, so hearing Jesus uphold worship of this monstrous dickhead disabused me of any illusions that Jesus was fundamentally different.

From verse 19 through the end of the chapter (verse 48), Jesus tells the faithful how his commands are different and (sometimes) more stringent than the “old laws”.

Chapters 6 and 7 continue his teachings. As I was writing this post, I happened upon a literary summary of the New Testament at SparkNotes. I’m not recommending them as anything more than a nicely organized summary, but it’s there for the reading. For example, they point out the loose organization of Matthew into an introduction (chapters 1-4), The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7),

...The Mission Sermon, which empowers Jesus’s apostles, follows Jesus’s recognition that more teachers and preachers are necessary (10:1–42). The mysterious Sermon in Parables responds to Jesus’s frustration with the fact that many people do not understand or accept his message (13:1–52). The Sermon on the Church responds to the need to establish a lasting fraternity of Christians (18:1–35). Finally, the Eschatological Sermon, which addresses the end of the world, responds to the developing certainty that Jesus will be crucified (23:1–25:46)

...concluded by the Last Supper and Jesus’ Resurrection.

Next time I’ll skip through chapters 6 and 7 again briefly to see what memorable thoughts we can accrue, then I’ll set out into the Mission Sermon.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The New Testament: Matthew

I participated in a Bible reading group once upon a time. The idea was good, but the implementation soured as the group progressed from the Old to New Testaments. The reasonable, and sometimes studiously devout believers that covered the Old Testament with us were replaced by a small, odd band of believers that were less interested in discussing the actual NT text, and more interested in exercising a weird argumentativeness. I don’t know if I can honestly apply the term “apologetics” to the approach being taken, but the group fell apart quickly, aided (I’ll presume) by a personal relationship between the blog host and one of the “new NT apologists”. I can just imagine our host, in the wee hours of the morning, thinking to himself “I have to put up with this guy in real life because he’s related to my sister. This blog shit has got to go.”

So, I never re-read the NT straight through, as I expected. Here, I’ll share some of my notes as I try again.

Matthew Chapter 1 primarily enumerates Jesus’ ancestors - ancestry being very important in the Hebrew world to establish one’s claim to power. At verse 18 the text describes Jesus’ birth, and establishes the concept of the virgin birth.

Matthew Chapter 2 is a rocket sled ride from Jesus’ birth to his arrival in Nazareth to begin his ministry.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

His eventual arrival in Nazareth:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Chapter 3 begins with tales of John the Baptist, into which is woven the story of Jesus:

13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.

The chapter ends on a note that comes up in apologetics and theology:

16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

One can be forgiven for assuming that this is the singular event at which Jesus' divinity is first recognized, but it's worth considering. Whether Jesus was eternal and whether he was eternally devine, are not questions we can answer given what we’ve read so far.

Chapter 4 sees Jesus going off into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, but prevailing, and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He enlists Simon/Peter, Andrew (Simon’s brother), James and John (James’ brother) as apostles / “fishers of men”. In just 25 verses, he has become famous, being followed by “great multitudes of people”.

I’ve read these first four chapters in Matthew many, many times now. The Gospels, Acts, some Pauline Epistles and Apocalypse are usually considered essential reading for the studious. Each time I re-read Matthew, I’m increasing struck by how sparse it is, and how the parallel passages in Mark are even more sparse. Here, Christmastime 2014, we will not see any mention of the celebration of Christmas. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - seem to serve as the platform on which a religion is to be built. The prime mover in that new religion of Jesus worship is Paul, who we'll get to after the Gospels are complete. Let me note that during Jesus’ lifetime, no mention of him is preserved. No monuments, legal documents or contemporary historical mention exists. When I was a believer, I never gave this much thought. Now, as a more thoughtful amateur critic, I find it exceedingly strange.

More next time.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Time for an Objective Moral Values project?

Among familiar arguments for the existence of God is the existence of Objective Moral Values. I understand that many philosophers feel that OMVs exist, independent of the existence of God. I think it's time for me to find these OMVs, or attempt to enumerate a crude list.

Just saying.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Michael Brown

The killing of Michael Brown has captured the American public’s attention much as Trayvon Martin’s killing did. It has many of the same features, and evokes the same emotions for many of us.

A young man was killed before he had begun to fulfill his potential as a human being. The universe will never know what he was capable of. A mother has lost her son. A family has lost their brother, son, nephew, uncle, cousin. Friends have lost a friend. These are tragedies. Horrors. This has changed mother, family and friends forever.

I see differences as well. Trayvon was being pursued in the dark by someone who definitely wasn't an authority. His decision to turn on his stalker was one that many of us would have made.

Michael was in broad daylight. He was confronted by a police officer in a police car. It is clear, regardless of the (so far) unsubstantiated reports of violence initiated by Michael, that he failed to follow the direction of a uniformed police officer in a recognizable police car. This doesn’t turn out well for anyone - black, white or brown. I personally ended up in jail in my twenties for arguing with a police officer. I had to plead no contest and pay a fine. Michael could have done the same, if he had been me - white. It makes no difference that Darren Wilson failed to control the situation, or that he was inept and homicidal. Michael could have avoided this.

We all make mistakes. Some of them are fatal. Some of them are irrelevant and evaporate in the breeze. For Michael Brown, his mother, his family and his friends, his mistake lead to his killing. Black men and boys get killed, where white men just go to jail like I did. It’s a tragedy, a horror, a grave injustice, and mother, family and friends will feel the sorrow of this forever.

There are at least two lessons. One, if you’re black, the police - and people who think they have police power - will kill you. So be cautious. Err on the side of living to another day.

The second lesson is for America. If you’re black, the police - and people who think they have police power - will kill you. This has to change now. The Michael Browns of the world deserve to live until tomorrow. They deserve law enforcement that values their lives like they value their own children. They deserve a legal process like I - a white man - received. They deserve a chance to live.

Anything else is a tragedy.

Link to PBS table of witness testimony

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Minute Meditations

I had a brief Twitter exchange with tweep @Playdoughpoem who mentioned that (as a recent deconvert) she missed praying. I suggested "minute meditations", which are something I've done on-and-off since the '70s.

It started in an attempt to calm myself and relieve stress in my twenties. I had been having panic attacks since my early teens (subsequently resolved with thyroid supplements). I tried yoga and "relaxation tapes" - somewhere between the two I developed a habit of calming meditation in the morning, which grew into applying it in little slices throughout the day. Being able to relax all of your body parts, becoming comfortable physically, then calming your mind and either banishing all thought, or focusing on one or several mantras, affirmations, reinforcements was soon something I could do at my desk, or while walking across the parking lot. Very helpful.

I was a non-believer by then, but I still recognized that prayer had been good for me when I was a believer. I adopted both minute meditations and longer, more serious meditating as replacements for prayer, and I've never looked back. In fact, I still say a few words of thanks to the "objects that be" occasionally before I fall asleep.

Critics of prayer slam it as nothing more than talking to yourself. I agree, and in this example, that's the whole point. Talking to yourself with a purpose can be beneficial, so why not take advantage of it?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Are there Objective Moral Values in the world?

I posed the following question to @SecularOutpost on Twitter a few weeks ago:

@SecularOutpost layman’s questions: If “objective” is defined roughly as “having reality independent of the mind”, doesn’t the discussion of Objective Moral Values require explanations for 1) where OMVs would independently reside, absent the existence of minds, and 2) what mechanism(s) exist that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist? Is that (part of) what’s required to make a sensible argument for OMVs?

He was kind enough to reply:

.@skepticali I think your analysis is good. The only part I might reject or edit would be the part about the mechanism(s) that make OMVs available to minds once minds do exist, since that blurs ontology with epistemology. It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.

My followup question:

@SecularOutpost how do we access OMVs? It *seems* to be culturally. If it’s truly objective, wouldn’t they be physical, in some sense?

His response:

.@skepticali I don't see why. 2+2=4 but I wouldn't call that physical. The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology. I.e., an ethical naturalist will have a different answer than an ethical non-naturalist.

I thanked him and went off into the woods for seven years of reflection and meditation. Or less.

After returning to civilization, I confronted my unrequited concern about the possibility of there being “independent reality” for objective moral values. I'm probably too unfamiliar with moral philosophy (or philosophy in general) to understand @SecularOutpost’s point that

“It's possible that OMVs exist and we can know that fact, without knowing which OMVs exist.”

I’m still troubled at how we can arrive at the actual OMVs that we say exist, and how a separate observer - maybe at a different time, place and culture - can arrive at those same actual OMVs. That we might not know which OMVs exist calls into question how it is that we could know they exist. I’m not saying that knowing OMVs exist in principal requires that we know which specific OMVs exist, but the lack of actual OMVs that we can independently arrive at - and verify - makes the argument that “OMVs exist” appear much weaker to me.

His tweet

“The answer to your question about access will depend on one's position about moral ontology.”

indicates that accessing the OMV’s is relative (”...will depend on...”), thus is not objective in the sense of “having reality independent of the mind”. I can restate this as
a Divine Command Theorist, an Ethical Naturalist, and an Ethical Non-Naturalist may all agree that OMVs exist, yet all three differ as to what they are.
This does not demonstrate to me that OMVs exist. It demonstrates that the three parties think they exist, and implies that they can each derive them repeatably using their individual principles and practices, but there is no guarantee that they can arrive at the same conclusions. @SecularOutpost's tweet seems to confirm this. Arriving at three potentially differing sets of OMVs would imply that two and maybe all three are not truly objective facts in the way that we think of gravity as being an objective fact. So I remain puzzled: “If there are Objective Moral Values in the world, how do we assure ourselves that they have reality independent of the mind?”

Postscript: I'll eventually be asking @SecularOutpost to review this and comment on it - but I think I'll let it breathe for a day.