By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is It True?

Source: N.Y. Times.

I ask myself that question when people speak on and on about some of their cherished assumptions that may in fact be more a construction of reality than a reflection of reality. I recently came across an example of how concepts can take on a life of their own for reasons we may little suspect.

While studying Caesar's Gallic War with a very talented professor and while researching in order to write a paper in this same course, this question came to me: What is the difference between a Celt (Gaul) and a German? These are two of the groups Caesar battles in the Gallic War.

After listening in class and reading further, it seems that the difference between a Celt and a German may simply be Caesar's political ambitions. Let me explain.

Caesar needed a big conquest so that he could get back to Rome and seek a consulship and more power. The land beyond the Rhine was just too big and too challenging to fit into the pressing time frame of his political ambitions. Hence, the area beyond the Rhine becomes the land of the Germans, of a distinct and excessively barbaric people not worth conquering. In contrast, the Celts or Gauls are a doable conquest within the time frame needed by Caesar's ambitions. Hence, the Rhine becomes the ethnic and cultural demarcation between Celt and German and the limit of Roman power, in spite of the fact that the peoples were, from all indications, closely related. See, for example, the comments of F.E. Adcock in Caesar As Man of Letters (Cambridge, 1956), p. 97, at this Google books link.

The rest is history. The French consider themselves Gauls or Celts; and certainly the people across the Rhine consider themselves quite distinctly German. (The work called The Germania by the Roman historian Tacitus would later do much to lay a foundation for German identity and unfortunate German nationalism in the modern era.)

I also recall a N.Y. Times article on DNA research from Oxford University in which the researcher concludes that the peoples of the British Isles (whether Scots or English or Welsh or Irish) are really one stock that migrated from--get ready for this--the Iberian Peninsula! Yet, the article concluded that there was no expectation that this scientific discovery would inhibit the various nationalisms, prejudices, and jingoism of these different, neighboring groups:

The Celtic cultural myth “is very entrenched and has a lot to do with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity; their main identifying feature is that they are not English,” said Dr. Sykes, an Englishman who has traced his Y chromosome and surname to an ancestor who lived in the village of Flockton in Yorkshire in 1286.
Source link.

Yes, it seems that individuals and even nations can build their identities on arbitrary constructions that have little to do with any inherent or necessary differences between peoples. The Bible tells us that the just shall live by faith. The Bible and experience also tell us that many of us live by comfortable illusions only loosely based on historical fact. Unfortunately, some of these illusions or delusions have led to violence and war. More often, they simply lead to living in an ego-comforting fantasy world.

And so it is quite refreshing to read St. Paul making light of and relativizing so many of our human divisions, even ones that are indisputably real:

 28There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond [slave] nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 (KJV).

Class Discussion Fall 2011

English: The Giving of Quail, as in Exodus 16,...
Image via Wikipedia
I am currently teaching an Introduction to Scripture course this fall; and, periodically, we stumble upon some insights in the course of class discussion that are worth sharing.

1.) Each class begins with a prayer by one of the students. The prayer is assigned in anticipation to a particular student for each class meeting. The prayer consists of two Scripture readings (one from the assigned reading for that particular class meeting and one from another related biblical passage that the student chooses on his own). After the prayer, the student gives his or her own interpretation, which I refer to as the pesher or midrash.

One student read John 6, the famous Bread of Life discourse, and also the matching reading from Exodus 16 concerning manna and quail given to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In his midrash, the student noted that in the New Testament passage of John 6 concerning the Eucharist, Jesus combines the idea of bread and flesh by declaring that he is the Bread of Life and by declaring that this bread is his flesh-- ideas that are foreshadowed separately in the Old Testament account of the manna (bread) and quail (flesh). The Eucharist fulfills and combines the types of bread and flesh that are separate in the book of Exodus. I, for one, had never considered this insight before that night.

2.) Another insight came in reading and discussing this passage at Galatians 3:28 (ESV; emphasis added):

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

One student asked about the meaning of there being "no male or female." One thing that came to mind to me was that circumcision as a sign of the covenant (which Paul is vociferously rejecting as a necessity for Christians in Galatians) was not for women in Jewish culture but for men only. But, now, in the New Covenant, Baptism is open to all, both men and women. I do not claim that point exhausts the entire meaning of this particular phrase, but it is an interesting aspect that I had not previously considered.

So, yes, teaching is a great privilege; and, often, the teacher himself is being happily instructed by student comments and by student questions which force him to come up with an answer on the spot.
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Monday, November 28, 2011

The "More Hispano"

Ganado caballar en Asturias
Image via Wikipedia
Asturias region of Spain


Flag of the Asturias.
Image via Wikipedia
Regional flag of Asturias, Spain
[Emphasis added by blogger]

VATICAN CITY, 26 NOV 2011 (VIS) - This evening in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, the government of the Principality of Asturias, Spain, offered a concert in honour of the Holy Father. The Orchestra of the Principality played works by Falla, Albeniz, Rueda, Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov. At the end of the performance Benedict XVI arose to address some words to musicians and public.

Don Pelayo
Image by cyfuss via Flickr
Pelayo, Visigothic King of Asturias
  "This evening", he said, "a 'piece' of Spain has been transferred into this hall. We have heard music written by some of the most famous composers of that land, ... as well as by the German Richard Strauss and the Russian Rimsky-Korsakov who were fascinated with what ... has been defined as 'more hispano'; that is, the 'Hispanic' way of being, and of composing and playing music. This is the element which the various pieces we have heard have in common, they share the fundamental characteristic of using music to communicate feelings and emotions, almost I would say the fabric of daily life. This is because composers who follow 'more hispano' are almost naturally led to a harmonious fusion of elements of folklore and popular song, which come from everyday life, with what we call 'classical music'".

  "However", the Holy Father went on, "another constantly recurring theme of 'more hispano' compositions is the element of religion, with which the Spanish people are so deeply imbued. Rimsky-Korsakov understood this well mixing, in his splendid 'Capriccio Espagnol', songs and dances of Spanish folklore with popular religious melodies. ... This is the magic worked by music, the universal language which can overcome all barriers and allow us to enter the world of others, of a nation or a culture, at the same time enabling us to turn our mind and hearts ... to the world of God".

Note from Blogger: A branch of my own family comes from the Principality of Asturias, a common connection for many other Cuban-Americans. Notice the Christian symbols in the Asturian flag above--where the Reconquest against the Moorish invasion started. Pelayo, a Visigoth, started the Reconquest at Covadonga (see his statue above).

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Birth of the Celebrity Presidency

Kennedy brothers; left to right John, Robert, Ted.
Image via Wikipedia
It was born during the short and tragically ended administration of JFK. Columnist Ron Douthat, in my view, writes correctly about:

why the J.F.K. cult matters — because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement.

NY Times Source link.

I believe that history will view, if it does not do already, the Kennedy years as the time when modern American politics entered the era of superficiality, glibness, and deception, when Hollywood glamour replaced the virtues of a great Republic in which character, self-restraint, and steadiness were valued more than showmanship, glamour, and style. 

The Kennedy family was profoundly troubled. The problem for us is that those troubles entered the nation's political bloodstream and did not remain a private tragedy. Today's continuing denial about the Kennedy reality is just another sign that we have lost our way in discerning what is most important. The glibness and vacuousness of a Clinton and an Obama would not be possible without the pioneering Kennedy role in ushering us to the "new frontier" of the celebrity presidency. The smiles you see in the photo are the ironic symbols of American decline assisted by a very strange family.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gratitude Saves

A Bronze tom
Image via Wikipedia
Here is the link to a N.Y. Times story, with the following wise excerpt:

Why does gratitude do so much good? “More than other emotion, gratitude is the emotion of friendship,” Dr. McCullough says. “It is part of a psychological system that causes people to raise their estimates of how much value they hold in the eyes of another person. Gratitude is what happens when someone does something that causes you to realize that you matter more to that person than you thought you did.”

Source link.

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Maybe, the Question Is Wrong

Question Everything
Image by dullhunk via Flickr
One of the amusing parts of the Gospels is how Jesus responds to the questions of his opponents with another question. His enemies tried to put him in a box. He refused to cooperate.

Recently, I had the same experience when a friend presented me with this very simple offer of choices: how can you believe in a good, all-powerful God in a world of suffering? Either a good, all-powerful God and no suffering. Or suffering without a good, all-powerful God.

My response was to politely disagree with the framing of the issue. The mystery of evil in the world is not solvable by a simple binary, multiple-choice trap that is both simplistic and, frankly, crude.

The mystery of evil in the world is an issue that we can only approach through the Jericho Method described in the blog post below. In other words, it is an issue that we must patiently circle around, hoping upon each circular pass to acquire some greater bit of insight and sensitivity that can shed some light on this mystery.

Ultimately, the Christian response is this: the virtually naked man hanging on the wooden instrument of torture used by the Romans on the lowest of the low in their social scale testifies that Christians--especially those who display crucifixes--do not skirt at all the issue of the suffering of the innocent. The Christian response to such suffering is to point out that God became man in the form of a slave and voluntarily exposed himself to unimaginable torture. So, to the mystery of evil, we must add the mystery of God becoming a victim. To that mystery, we must add other dimensions--the dimension of free will, which leads to bad choices; the dimension of the growth, maturation, and wisdom that emerge from suffering; the dimension of the promise that God will ultimately set all things to right.

Thus, the problem of evil is one with multiple dimensions, over which the most intelligent thinkers of many traditions have wrestled  for centuries.  It is not a simple multiple-choice question as the leading philistines of contemporary atheism would have us naively believe. A sort of crude, self-assured atheist fundamentalism is alive and well and missing the boat entirely in its crude oversimplification of the mystery of suffering by blithely ignoring the work of so many thinkers.
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The Jericho Method

Laconicum w termach pałacu Heroda Wielkiego. S...
Image via Wikipedia
"Some books [or situations] cannot be taken by direct assault; they must be taken like Jericho." — Ortega

[The city of Jericho fell to the Israelites after they marched all around the city many times over 7 days. Some things take time and patience.]
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Kindle Fire Tablet

Amazon Kindle Fire
Image by IslesPunkFan via Flickr
The new Kindle Fire tablet is worth the $199--a savings of $300 over the Ipad. The only disadvantage is the smaller size, but the device is still enjoyable and gets the job done. In addition, the smaller size is an advantage when it comes to using while on the go or addressing a class or group. I plan to lecture from it.
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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Should You "Judge"?

! Love My Dog(s) November '06 MosaicImage by waɪ.tiː via FlickrThat is a perennial Christian question because of the famous verse telling us, "Judge not, that ye be not judged," in Matthew 7 (KJV):

Judging OthersLk. 6.373841421 Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Mk. 4.24 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. 6 ¶ Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

In the Old Testament, we face similar challenges and have to interpret some, if not most, of the proverbs by looking at context, at a particular situation, and at timing. Let's try to take the same particularizing approach here.

If we read thoughtfully the famous command not to judge along with the other verses forming the context, the basic meaning seems clear: do not play the hypocrite who criticizes others but gives himself a blank check. I see here the basic attitude that is the key to living in touch with reality: humility.

Humility means not seeing the ongoing story of our own lives and, equally, the lives of others as complete before they are complete. Humility means bowing to the mystery of the complexities of life as people make their journey in the wilderness--that "bowing" to the complexities facing others requires that we first learn about those complexities and not shoot recklessly from the hip. Humility means that we do not foreclose the Promised Land to either ourselves or to anyone else.

On the other hand, humility does not mean that we are not compassionately troubled when we see self-destructive acts. Our response to the self-destructive acts of others is to propose a different course for them, not to sneer at them. In fact, humility leads us to judge acts as harmful and to respectfully propose a different course to our friends.

Notice that the framework is one of friendship which takes time to develop. Humility says that there go I, but for the grace of God, but for the providential learning and self-awareness that come from hard experience. Humility aware of our own stupidity sees the stupidity of the behavior of others and seeks to propose another route that will avoid a personal dead end for others, the same dead end from which we ourselves have turned away. Thus, counseling others requires maturity, maturity borne out of our own similar struggles. So, maybe, any form of judging is not something that the very young or inexperienced should even contemplate doing for some time.

As you can see, the approach rooted in humility is the complete contrary of the arrogance that Jesus condemns. Thus, my own interpretation of the famous passage about not judging is to add an adverb to the command: do not judge others arrogantly, but do judge others within the framework of personal humility, kindness, and friendship which seeks to offer to others the way out that we have stumbled upon ourselves.

Where do I see the textual justification for these sentiments? I see them in the crucial verses 5 and 6 above, which often are ignored in our casual recalling of this famous passage in our everyday thinking and conversations.

A. Verse 5 gives us the formula--reread it above before reading what comes next!

First, clean up your own act, examine yourself. Once we examine ourselves, we realize our own state of ongoing imperfection, struggle, and trial-and-error. Only then, after taking this first step, look and evaluate the behavior of others. They, too, are trying to climb out of some hole, a hole due to some tragedy or to some emotional problem or to some form of suffering or to some type of troubled upbringing. Only then, when you see that you are the same as the other, can you even begin to try to evaluate the behavior of the other. Yet, also notice that the ultimate goal is not so much to evaluate as to aid the other, to help him or her. The ultimate purpose is compassion, not berating or attacking or controlling or managing the other. The goal is to "cast out the mote" out of the eye of the other, not to prattle about the mote to the other person or to other people.

B. Verse 6 (also reread verse 6 above!) gives us a firm warning applicable to this entire process.

Verse 6 gives, in my view, a very realistic warning that reminds me of the Old Testament proverb not to grab a dog by the ear, or else we will find ourselves bitten (see Proverbs 26:17). Even with the best of intentions, we need to build friendship before trying to help others with advice or counsel. We need to demonstrate agape first--a process which is naturally gradual and time-consuming. In the process of building that agape friendship, we are also humbly learning about the complexities of the personality, past and current trials, and struggles of others. Only after that journey (which comes at different rates of speed) are we ready to respectfully address the journey of our neighbors. This practical wisdom is captured by the common warning not to try to rearrange the furniture of another's life before first building a relationship of mutual confidence.

The bottom-line is to tread carefully, humbly, and with docility, with our personal commitment to being "teachable" by the complexities of the lives of others, whenever we are tempted to "judge" others. It is a subtle task. That is why, ironically, for most of us, it is indeed better to follow the superficial reading--if you are not willing to be and work at being subtle, then you are better off not judging at all! If subtlety is foreign to your personality, don't even go there. Maybe, that reality is why Jesus starts by stating the famous command about judging so baldly and stringently, since he knows what is in us so well.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Survival of the Kind

NSRW Charles Robert DarwinImage via WikipediaTo the likely surprise of many, Darwin corroborated by analogy the very religious and certainly Christian insight that we humans are hard-wired for kindness. Psychologist Paul Ekman quotes these statements by Darwin in the book Emotional Awareness (Henry Holt, 2008), p. 143 (original emphasis):

Many animals, however, certainly sympathize with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansberry found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat. And must have been long and well-fed by his companions.
. . . .
Mr. Blythe informs me he saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions, which are blind. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive. But such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. I have, myself, seen a dog who never passed a great friend of his, a cat, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, a sure sign of kind feeling in a dog.
For with those animals which were benefited by living in close association, the individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers. Whilst those that cared least for their comrades and lived solitarily would perish in great numbers.

See Source above.

The Christian belief is that our core identity as humans is mirrored in the self-sacrifice of Jesus for others on the cross. That ultimate kindness is the key to finding one's life as a human being. And certainly the Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition also taught that kindness is the way to flourish in this life.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Positive Word About Islam

SeaWiFS collected this view of the Arabian Pen...Image via WikipediaThis blog makes no bones about exposing the massive and very frequent violations of the religious freedom of Christians and other non-Muslims in so many majority Muslim nations. Yet, it is fair and fitting to slip in a positive note here and there.

I recently met a gracious young Muslim couple from Saudi Arabia. They were college students, studious, hard-working, and polite. They even graciously offered me a cup of their Arabian tea. We spoke about the cultural differences between them and America.

They spoke about their arranged marriage in which, as I understood it, neither had even seen the other prior to the engagement. She spoke about her satisfaction with the way her culture protected women and limited contact with males outside the family. Of course, modest dress was a given.

While I see no need to advocate the extremes of dress or the restriction of the public role of women, there are lessons to be learned here:

1. Women need protection--today, in America, exploitive males and emotionally naive women have joined to create a battlefield littered with emotional, psychological, and even physical casualties. One way to protect women is for families to pass on a strong commitment to saving sex for marriage and a strong stigmatization of and taboo against "shacking up." Our religious institutions must take the lead in incessantly and repeatedly proposing this new model in stark and explicit terms. Our religious institutions seem to be able to speak effortlessly and endlessly about donations. They should also speak incessantly about these more vital cultural matters.

2. Modest dress does not require the extremes of the traditional Islamic code. But the West does need longer skirts, less tight clothing, and higher necklines. It's a matter of dignity, of sending the message that it is my character and personality that count, not the accidents of my physique being put in public view for all on the street to see.

The Christian model of equal rights for women, of saving sex for marriage, and of reasonable standards of modesty is, in my view, superior to the Muslim model--yet, our Muslim friends can serve to remind us of the urgent social work that our religious institutions need to do.

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