Category: Religion

Thunder and Revelation

Adam Gopnik’s exceptional review of Elaine Pagels’ new book on The Book of Revelations in The New Yorker brings the complexity of the early 1st Millenium into stark focus. Were the Pauline tracts aberrant and Revelations an attempt to turn early Christianity back from Gentile contamination?  Why was the book so controversial and the early Christian world filled with so many heresies? Arianism, Sethianism, Valentianism, and the list goes on and on…only to be resolved by political wrangling and ecumenical councils.

Noteworthy is Pagels’ inclusion of discussion of the Nag Hammadi poem, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  Gopnik points us to a Ridley Scott commercial for Prada that includes a reading of it:

Thunder Perfect Mind – a Prada Film starring Daria Werbowy from M G on Vimeo.

Also notable is that the model uses some cherry picking of the poem content.  “I am the whore and the holy one” probably has the wrong resonance for a Prada perfume.  From mystic revelation to luxury goods…as astonishing a journey as The Book of Revelations.

Etruscan Teleology

I was, somewhat ironically, concocting salmon risotto with a drizzle of white wine while my wife read to me about Etruscan mythology from Wikipedia this evening.  From Seneca the Younger:

Whereas we believe lightning to be released as a result of the collision of clouds, they believe that the clouds collide so as to release lightning: for as they attribute all to deity, they are led to believe not that things have a meaning insofar as they occur, but rather that they occur because they must have a meaning.

Last year we had the opportunity to visit the National Etruscan Museum in Rome during the most unbearably tropical European summer in recent memory.

Seneca the Younger somewhat snidely detected a difference, driven at least partially by a feeling of cultural dominance, that teleological explanations are inferior to naturalistic ones, that one more entity (or a host of them) provides no additional value to the explanatory system.

Transcendent Ivory

Alain de Botton has an interesting suggestion in the Wall Street Journal: create restaurants that are communal and that are designed to foster social interaction with an almost religious quality. This follows fairly closely on the heels of Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley’s suggestion that maybe a good religious substitute can be found in mass sports events.

Why is a secular substitute for religion needed? It’s not completely clear. Each author argues that there is something fundamentally missing from our modern, cosmopolitan lives. What is missing is a sense of wonder, a sense of transcendence, a sense of community involvement, a sense of egoless participation, a universe of interactions based on something other than commercial interests, non-creepy greetings (de Botton)…something.

But they both neglect one of the crowning achievements of the modern world. Organized sports are largely passive events for the spectators. Restaurants are far too much about eating and not about ideas. What we do have, however, are university systems that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and are accessible (with all the caveats of price) to almost all of the population. Only in university systems are people organized around a commitment to knowledge, science, and art. Economic status is less important than intellectual capacity. Ideas reign and social interaction is driven by common cause.

What we need is more ivory towers. After all, even the phrase may have been sourced from the Song of Solomon:

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus

Puritanical Warfare

The LA Times sheds additional light on the complex question of America’s founding and the religious ideals of historical figures in this piece.  Author John M. Barry described Roger Williams breaking away from the Massachusetts Pilgrims to found Rhode Island, quoting his view of religious liberty:

[even] “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships” [should be allowed to pray or not pray]

“forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Williams is notable because he stands in stark contrast to John Winthrop who is the source of the “city upon a hill” that is a common reference point in presidential aspirational speeches:

For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us

Yet, for all that shiny exceptionalism, Puritans believed slavery was justified by the Old Testament, harassed and executed Quakers, reviled one another as heretics, and believed that God had killed Native Americans using smallpox to give the land to the Puritans:

But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection.

The goal of a GOP candidate using the “hill” quote is to invoke the ghost of Reagan. Sadly, the important historical lessons about tolerance and the evolutionary seeds of our modern understanding of the ethics of freedom get lost when it becomes jingoistic.