December 28, 2003

Curiosity

Reader Mahsheed pointed to this essay, Is There and Islamic Problem?, and asked what I think of it. I've read it a few times; there's a lot to digest, but my overall impression isn't all that favorable. I'll have more to say later, but there's a passage I couldn't help noting:

In addition, the standard claims about the rationality of modern Europe – even during the Enlightenment – are exaggerated. Several of the leading scientists of the seventeenth century – including Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Pierre Gassendi – admired for their contributions to the development of modern physics and astronomy, held astrology in high esteem. Even Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of modern times, devoted nearly two decades of his life to investigations in alchemy. A mere twelve percent of the books in Newton’s library were on physics, astronomy and mathematics. On the contrary, not only were the leading philosopher-scientists of Islamicate societies opposed to astrology, so was Islamic orthodoxy.

This is a point I've raised myself; among Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, there was a ferment of ideas, some of which were based on odd notions and sources. Over the weekend, I read about John Calvin's struggle to suppress "superstition" -- the problem, obviously, is that for all Newton's superstition, it's clear to me what humanity gains by suppressing speculative thought, some (perhaps most) of which will be nonsense on the order of the works of Johann Valentin Andrea, and some of which will be the The Principia. I am reminded of a line from Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, that in the end, reason is unreasonable. If the Wright Brothers believed in elves, and that by flying they would have the opportunity to commune with the elves, would that have diminished their airplane?

From which has humanity benefitted more -- from Calvin's austere theology, or Newton's expansive reading?

Posted by Ideofact at 11:39 PM | Comments (2)

December 24, 2003

Libertines in Calvin's Geneva

Bernard Cottret's volume on John Calvin (which I note is no longer available -- more's the pity) continues to impress. He quotes extensively of the kind of day-to-day matters with which Geneva's consistory -- a quasi religious/governmental body composed of four ministers and 20 members of the various elected councils -- dealt. I found this example illuminating:

A case involving women set off the explosion. On Thursday, June 23, 1547, several women appeared before the consistory for having danced. Among them was Francoise Favre, second wife of Ami Perrin. She had already had dealings with the consistory a year before (April 1546), when, refusing to testify against several friends of hers who were guilty of having danced, she stood up to Calvin, thus incurring several days' incarceration. This time she was determined to resist. She calmly refused to be talked to about it and sharply told the elders that it was not for them to admonish her. This noble task belonged at most to her husband. Her "fierce and rebellious words" and "gross blasphemies" cast a certain chill. The next day the pastor Abel Poupin let his anger break out in turn, and Francoise Perrin was ordered imprisoned under the control of the watchman Jean Blanc. Ami Perrin, the poor husband of this unfortunate pleasure seeker, was in France on assigned service, representing his city before Henry II, who succeeded Francis I that spring. Several relatives, including Pierre Tissot and Louis Bernard, interceded for the wife. But it was no use. Excitement mounted in the town, where various vicious rumors against Calvin circulated; a placard written in Geneva dialect was even posted on the pulpit of Saint-Pierre. There Abel Poupin was described bluntly as a "big lard-belly," while the venerable pastors appeared as "fucking renegade priests" who, barely quit of their "monkeries," intended to "blow smoke in the eyes" of everyone. In the middle of all this Ami Perrin returned from his journey in September; he hurried to the Council "in great anger." He displayed his afflction, and played the grand seigneur, greeting the august assembly nobly. Putting one leg forward, he exclaimed,

Most honored lords!

I understand that you are considering imprisoning my father-in-law and my wife. My father-in-law is old, my wife is ill; by imprisoning them you will shorten their days, to my great regret, which I have not deserved from you and which would be to give me poor recompense for the services I have done you. Therefore I beg you not to imprison them. If they have done wrong I will bring them here to make such amends that you will have reason to be content. I pray you to grant me this, since if you put them in prison God will aid me to avenge myself for it.

But they remained cold to the supplications of poor Perrin. It was a time of repression. The author of the placard posted in Saint-Pierre against Calvin was also arrested. Jacques Gruet admitted his crime under torture. He was immediately executed at the end of July. A strange person, this Gruet, whose materialist arguments could be validly considered a declaration of atheism. His papers reveal original thoughts abounding in denials of Christianity. "If I want to dance, leap, lead a joyful life, what business is it of the law?" Or again, "The world had no beginning and will have no end." "The one who was called Christ, who said he was the son of God, why did he endure his passion?" "I believe that when a man is dead there is no hope of his living." And so on. Calvin tore into Gruet, and his writings were publicly burned in a joyful auto-de-fe in 1550. Was Gruet an atheist? Probably. But he was also Gruet, a companion of the Favres and Perrins, Gruet the Genevan, exasperated by Calvin and the moral order he incarnated, against and opposed to everything. Many Genevan families, including many leading ones, endured more and more restively the supervision of the great man. ... They adopted the revealing title of "Children of Geneva." They were maliciously called "libertines," the title under which they have passed to posterity.

"If I want to dance, leap, lead a joyful life, what business is it of the law?" I think that quote stands for both Gruet and Francoise Perrin.

I'll add that I am sympathetic, if not entirely in accord, with some of Calvin's theological ideas and interpretations. When I read the Institutes and some of his sermons a few years back, I found an engaging intelligence. Pity that the power of the state came to be a substitute for argument.

Posted by Ideofact at 12:23 AM | Comments (1)

December 23, 2003

Posting erratic

I'll be around for the holidays, but frankly, I'm worn down, and I think this might be a good time to give the blog a rest. I might post here and there between now and next week, but don't count on it (judging from the hit counter, most of you stopped looking last week).

Posted by Ideofact at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2003

The great (un)wrapping

Sorry, nothing tonight, except another comment here. I had a more ambitious program planned, but alas -- there's one thing my lovely wife won't do for me, and that's wrap presents. Actually, it's not so much that she refuses, it's just that she has even less talent for it than I do.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2003

...and another thing

As I've mentioned before, I've been reading Bernard Cottret's biography of John Calvin. It's an engaging read. Cottret, a French historian, is more interested in Calvin as French writer, French thinker, French stylist, than he is in Calvin as Protestant Reformer; it's also worth noting that he seems to have no particular axe to grind as far as the Reformation goes. (Cottret seems almost as bothered as, say, Erasmus was over some of the obscurantist issues on which the Reformation turned.) The book is excellent, and because I was reading it, I decided not to comment on this assertion from Edward Feser's essay, Does Islam Need a Pope?:

...it must never be forgotten that it was Calvin, and not some Medieval Catholic, who founded in Geneva the world's first Christian totalitarian state...

Cottret notes that Geneva's political reformation began before Calvin ever set foot in the city; that Calvin was once kicked out of Geneva for a few years because he clashed with the temporal authority over the question of whether the Lord's Supper (the Protestant version of the Mass) should be celebrated monthly or four times a year. Throughout Calvin's tenure in Geneva, he battled with the civil magistrates, who had far more of a role in the congregations (they could excommunicate, or even condemn to death heretics) than the ministers (including Calvin) had. Cottret writes,

Geneva, in fact, was never a theocracy. Although they interpenetrated each other more than today, the religious and political powers, the ministry and the magistracy, were never one and the same. Calvin indeed had to fight step-by-step to maintain the autonomy of the church against the ascendancy of the councils. The question of excommunication was at the center of the debate. Was it a religious action, as Calvin maintained, or did it come under the civil jurisdiction, as his adversaries wished? To sum up, Calvin did not take over the state; he was neither a commanding general nor an ayatollah. On the contrary, he only wanted to maintain a minimum of liberty of action for the church.

Feser's argument, it seems to me, continues to crumble...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:58 PM | Comments (1)

December 19, 2003

Popish miscellany

I've been lax in noting that Brian Ulrich responded to this post on Edward Feser's essay, Does Islam Need a Pope?, and rather elegantly so, I'd say. In response to Feser's suggestion that Islam is bereft of a body of theology and interpretation beyond the Qur'an which allows it to adapt to modern circumstances, Brian wrote,

Like so much that is written about Islam these days, there's no room for real discussion of this paragraph - it is simply wrong. Most of Islamic theology did not exist until a couple of centuries after Muhammad. Islamic law is not so much a set law code as a field of inquiry with different schools of thought, all of which most Muslims recognize as valid. True, Muslims trace much of this back to The Beginning, but as in all religions which claim to guard unchanging truths, they are, shall we say, in error.

Muslims throughout history have never had a problem adapting to modern science, and in many cases have advanced it. Because everyone acknowledges the Islamic world was a scientific leader 1000 years ago, to claim simultaneously that Islam is eternally unchanging and inherently a barrier to scientific achievement is an inconsistency which the proponents of that line never really address.

Well put, and I hope Brian follows through on the posts he suggested he might write.

Meanwhile, Razib of Gene Expression agreed more or less with the premise of my follow up to that first post, that liberalism developed in the Protestant lands rather than the Catholic, but added an important point:

Recently, I have come to the conclusion that American culture, influenced by Protestant propoganda, has unfairly painted the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy of science & progress. Even anti-religious secuarlists like Richard Dawkins use the Church as their special foil, the relic of a demon haunted age.

I agree with his point. I used to write fairly frequently on Paleo Ideofact (whose archives seem hopelessly bloggered at this point, but look here for an example) on the subject of technology and Latin Christendom:

By 1000 A.D., Europeans had embarked on a systematic program of harnessing the forces of nature -- water, wind, fire -- to power labor-saving machines, which were widely adopted across the continent. Windmills and watermills were regular features of the European landscape; in Islam, they were rare. It is also significant that, by the year 1000, slavery had all but disappeared in Christendom (replaced by a system of mutual obligation and rights among social classes), whereas slave labor remained a feature of the Islamic economy for another 8 or 9 centuries.

It is not wrong to say that Islam excelled in some areas in which Europe lagged far behind. Science (not technology) was one of them. But consider: In the eleventh century, a Muslim scientist wrote a treatise on the science of optics. About 185 years later, a European invented eyeglasses. I've never read the optical theory of Ibn al-Haytham (latinized as Alhazen), but I'm typing this while wearing a pair of glasses.

The late Lynn White Jr., in the regrettably out of print collection of essays, Medieval Religion and Technology, noted something more profound than the invention of eyeglasses:

The cumulative effect of the newly available animal, water, and wind power upon the culture of Europe has not been carefully studied. But from the twelth and even from the eleventh century there was a rapid replacement of human by non-human energy wherever great quantitites of power were needed or where the required motion was so simple and monotonous that a man could be replaced by a mechanism. The chief glory of the later Middle Ages was not its cathedrals or its epics or its scholasticism: it was the building for the first time in history of a complex civilization that rested not on the backs of sweating slaves or coolies but primarily on non-human power.

The study of medieval technology is therefore far more than an aspect of economic history: it reveals a chapter in the conquest of freedom. More than that, it was part of the history of religion. The humanitarian technology which our modern world has inherited from the Middle Ages was not rooted in economic necessity; for this 'necessity' is inherent in every society, yet has found inventive expression only in the Occident, nurtured in the activist or voluntarist tradition of Western theology. It is ideas which make necessity conscious. The labor-saving power machines of the later Middle Ages were produced by the implicit theological assumption of the infinite worth of even the most degraded human personality, by an instinctive repugnance towards subjecting any man to a monotonous drudgery which seems less than human in that it requires the exercise neither of the intelligence nor of choice. It has often been remarked that the Latin Middle Ages first discovered the dignity and spiritual value of labor -- that to labor is to pray. But the Middle Ages went further: they gradually and very slowly began to explore the practical implications of an essantially Christian paradox: that just as the Heavenly Jerusalem contains no temple, so the goal of labor is to end labor.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:19 PM | Comments (2)

December 17, 2003

The genius of Erasmus

I responded at length to a comment in the post immediately below, so I'll limit myself here to a quotation gleaned from the Bernard Cottret book Calvin: A Biography. It seems that Erasmus, like Calvin, was accused by the Catholic hierarchy of Arianism, that is, denying the trinity. In a footnote, Cottret quotes Erasmus' response to such charges:

The indiscreet subtleties of the Arians led the church to a more precise formulation ... We can forgive the ancients, but we, what excuse do we have for raising importunate, not to say impious, questions on subjects that are also remote from our own nature? ... We define so many things which may be left in ignorance or in doubt without loss of salvation. It is not possible to have fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit without being able to explain philosophically the distinction between them and between the nativity of the Son and the procoession of the Holy Ghost? If I believe that there are three of one nature, what is the use of labored disputation? If I do not believe, I shall not be persuaded by any human reasons ... You will not be damned if you do not know whether the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son has one or two beginnings, but you will not escape damnation, if you do not cultivate the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mercy, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity ... The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible, and in many things leave one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters, and man suffers from this almost congenital disease that he will not give in when once a controversy is started, and after he is heated he regards as absolutely true that which he began to sponsor quite casually ... Many problems are now reserved for an ecumenical council. It would be better to defer questions of this sort to the time when, no longer in a glass darkly, we see God face to face ... Formerly, faith was in life rather than in the profession of creeds. Presently, necessity required that articles be drawn up, but only a few with apostilic sobriety. Then the depravity of the heretics exacted a more precise scrutiny of the divine books .... When faith came to be in writings rather than in hearts, then there were almost as many faiths as men. Articles increased and sincerity decreased. Contention grew hot and love grew cold. The doctrine of Christ, which at first knew no hair splitting, came to depend on the aid of philosophy. This was the first stage in the decline of the church. ... The injection of the authority of the emporer into this affair did not greatly aid the sincerity of faith. ... When faith is in the mouth rather than in the heart, when the solid knowledge of Sacred Scripture fails us, nevertheless by terrorization we drive men to believe what they do not believe, to love what they do not love, to know what they do not know. That which is forced cannot be sincere, and that which is not voluntary cannot please Christ.

After reading about the Affair of the Placards, the speech delivered by Nicholas Cop that got both Calvin and Cop kicked out of Paris (and which a few modern Catholic theologians have certified as being utterly orthodox), disputes over whether the soul sleeps or goes immediately to heaven, etc. etc., Erasmus comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:52 PM | Comments (0)

December 16, 2003

2 Qutb 1

Curiosity continues to salt the snail. I've read the first chapter of Milestones, by Sayyid Qutb, the mid-20th Century Islamist radical who has been described as the brains of bin Laden. In the chapter, Qutb suggests a parallel for his vangaurd, discussed in the previous post in this series: the companions, or that first generation of Muslims who followed the Prophet. In doing so, by implication, Qutb comes perilously close to blasphemy by according to (presumably) himself a role that he imagines...well, read the rest...

After claiming that the there is no equal in human history to the Companions (one could quibble, to understate the case -- I personally find the Founders pretty hard to top), Qutb asks us to consider what was unique about them:

The Holy Qur'an was the only source from which they quenched their thirst, and this was the only mold in which they formed their lives. This was the only guidance for them, not because there was no civilization or culture or science or books or schools. Indeed, there was Roman culture, its civilization, its books and its laws, which even today are considered to be the foundation of European culture. There was the heritage of Greek culture- its logic, its philosophy and its arts, which are still a source of inspiration for Western thought. There was the Persian civilization, its art, its poetry and its legends, and its religion and system of government. There were many other civilizations, near or far, such as the Indian and Chinese cultures, and so on. The Roman and Persian cultures were established to the north and to the south of the Arabian peninsula, while the Jews and Christians were settled in the heart of Arabia. Thus we believe that this generation did not place sole reliance on the Book of God for the understanding of their religion because of any ignorance of civilization and culture, but it was all according to a well thought out plan and method.

We'll get back to the well thought out plan and method in a moment. First, it's worth noting that the Qur'an commands believers to go as far as China to seek out knowledge, and presumably Allah is not suggesting that believers look for copies of the Qur'an there. I can't help thinking of Averroes, known as "The Commentator" on Aristotle in both the Muslim realms and in Christian Europe; for Averroes no less than for us moderns, Greek philosophy provided a discipline and a tool for rigorous thinking, yet this was not incompatible with uniquely Islamic theological speculation, as a reading of these treatises on the relationship between reason and faith will demonstrate. Yet for Qutb, Averroes is not an Islamic thinker, and perhaps not even a Muslim. One would think, reading Qutb, that the basis of the Islamic religion is so weak that even the simplest reference to something not Islamic could bring the whole Ummah crashing down:

We are also surrounded by Jahiliyyah [that is, the pre-Islamic, pagan, chaotic state that existed in Arabia prior to the revelation to the Prophet and the spread of his message -- ideofact] today, which is of the same nature as it was during the first period of Islam, perhaps a little deeper. Our whole environment, people's beliefs and ideas, habits and art, rules and laws-is Jahiliyyah, even to the extent that what we consider to be Islamic culture, Islamic sources, Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought are also constructs of Jahiliyyah!

This is why the true Islamic values never enter our hearts, why our minds are never illuminated by Islamic concepts, and why no group of people arises among us who are of the calibre of the first generation of Islam.

So Islamic values are so fragile, have such a tenuous hold on the believer that they can be driven out by Beethoven, Benny Goodman or the Beatles; by Seneca, Sophocles or Spongebob Squarepants; by Washington, Wittgenstein or Wile E. Coyote. What a high opinion of his faith Qutb has!

To any reasonable person, this is nonsense, but Qutb isn't aiming at reasonable people. He is seeking his vanguard, after all, and he wants them to think of themselves as the equal of the Companions. Even if that means that only slivers of the Qur'an will make up the whole of their intellectual life:

They of the first generation did not approach the Qur'an for the purpose of acquiring culture and information, nor for the purpose of taste or enjoyment. None of them came to the Qur'an to increase his sum total of knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself or to solve some scientific or legal problem, or to remove some defect in his understanding. He rather turned to the Qur'an to find out what the Almighty Creator had prescribed for him and for the group in which he lived, for his life and for the life of the group. He approached it to act on what he heard immediately, as a soldier on the battle- field reads "Today's Bulletin" so that he may know what is to be done. He did not read many verses of the Qur'an in one session, as he understood that this would lay an unbearable burden of duties and responsibilities on his shoulders. At most he would read ten verses, memorize them, and then act upon them. [emphasis added]

I imagine that Qutb is not referring to the Qur'an's specific injunction that there is no compulsion in religion, so act accordingly. In fact, who is supposed to dole out those bulletins to the vanguard? Qutb is too modest to say, but he does note a modest precursor.

Thus, God Most High imparted it to them in a gradual manner, to be read at intervals:

"We have revealed this Qur'an little by little so that you may recite it to people at intervals, and We have revealed it gradually." (17:106)

And who is to suggest the proper verses to act upon, who is to reveal to the vanguard, little by little, "Today's Bulletin" from the Qur'an?

I suspect we'll find out in the next chapter...

Correction: Abu Noor al-Irlandee is kind enough to point out, in a thoughtful critique of this post and the one previous, that the "seek knowledge so far as China" is not in the Qur'an, but rather a Hadith. My apologies for the error, and I'm replying, in comment form, to the other points he raises.


Posted by Ideofact at 11:34 PM | Comments (6)

December 15, 2003

2 Qutb i

As Spongebob Squarepants once remarked to his pet Gary (a mollusk of some sort), curiosity salted the snail. Unable to help myself, I looked at the introduction of Milestones, by Sayyid Qutb, the mid-20th Century Islamist radical who has been described as the brains of bin Laden. A few quick impressions:

First, towards the end of his introduction, which once again is a call for Islamic renewal, he sort of gives the game away:

Without doubt, we possess this new thing which is perfect to the highest degree, a thing which mankind does not know about and is not capable of 'producing'.

But as we have stated before, the beauty of this new system cannot be appreciated unless it takes a concrete form. Hence it is essential that a community arrange its affairs according to it and show it to the world. In order to bring this about, we need to initiate the movement of Islamic revival in some Muslim country. Only such a revivalist movement will eventually attain to the status of world leadership, whether the distance is near or far.

That "new thing" is Qutb's Islamist vision, and I found his choice of words telling. He is not offering something traditional, but rather "a new thing," his "revival," which must be accomplished in one state. Incidentally, the closest thing to a Qutbian Utopia was Afghanistan under the Taliban, ruled by the "vanguard" of Muslims he anticipated would carry out his revival:

It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah which has encompassed the entire world. During its course, it should keep itself somewhat aloof from this all-encompassing Jahiliyyah and should also keep some ties with it.

Yawn. Same old Lenin in brand new drag comes screaming into view (sorry, but the indispensible iTunes just kicked up the Bowie track from Scary Monsters). So Milestones, then, is not so much a Mein Kampf as it is a What is to be done?. I think this is a fairly significant point; as Paul Berman argued in Terror and Liberalism, there is a fairly direct line running from the black hand through Lenin and his Bolshevik terrorists through the thought of Qutb. I tend to agree with that assessment: Qutb's vision of the Islamist state isn't particularly different from the communist state, except that instead paying lipservice to materialist Marxism, it would pay lipservice to transcendant Islam, all the while being organized with the same police state sort of order. Qutb also implied, in Social Justice in Islam, that the realization of his project would lead to a new Islamic man. From my cursory reading of the introduction, it appears that Milestones is the operators manual for achieving that.

So the vanguard he addresses is to implement this new thing -- and what has prompted the need for this vanguard? Qutb offers his usual wrong diagnosis:

The leadership of mankind by Western man is now on the decline, not because Western culture has become poor materially or because its economic and military power has become weak. The period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life-giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind.

It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.

Islam is the only System which possesses these values and this way of life.

The aforementioned Social Justice in Islam is Qutb's attempt to back up that last statement; in the process of doing so, he has to argue that virtually all of Islamic history, from the death of Ali (the fourth Caliph) to the present, isn't Islamic (or Islamist, as the case may be) to advance his thesis. I wrote about all this ages ago on paleo Ideofact; Zack of Procrastination was kind enough to offer an index to those posts. For Qutb, the "life giving values" do not include freedom of conscience, thought, or speech; they do not include popular representation and sovereignty; they do not include life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.

I haven't decided whether or not to read or, if I do read it, to blog the rest, but in just in case I started numbering ...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (5)

December 14, 2003

A noble emotion

My five year old woke me up at 8:15 or so with the news that Saddam had been captured. It was wonderful news, to say the least. For those interested, you can read about the Kurdish reaction here and here (note that the Kurds seem to be claiming some credit for the capture).

Watching Saddam's oral examination, I rememberd that Borges noted that a collective emotion can be noble (he wrote it on the day of the liberation of Paris in World War II; this is the third time since Sept. 11 that I have found this to be proven true (the first was watching Kabul's men shaving their beards; the second was watching the statues of Saddam come down).

Posted by Ideofact at 11:59 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2003

A town called Batman

In and of itself, that's cool enough (try saying it: I'm from Batman), but there's more to the story than that. Via Kurdish Media.com, this story, originally published in The Economist (I looked but couldn't find it online there), says that the situation of Kurds in Southern Turkey may be gradually improving. That's certainly good news, although the yardstick is ... well, judge for yourself:

As Turkey ploughs on with efforts to qualify to join the European Union, the effects of reforms enacted over the past year by the conservative government led by Tayyip Erdogan are being felt, sometimes in surprising ways, in the largely Kurdish south-east. A new porn video, Xashiki Kaliki (Grandad’s Fantasies) is selling well: until recently, it would have been banned, not for its content but for being in the Kurdish language.

Lest one think that the article doesn't make a more serious point, it goes on to note

More significantly, Turkey’s 14m Kurds are able for the first time to learn their own dialects through a handful of privately run courses.

In the town of Batman, Aydin Unesi, a Kurdish-language teacher, says 200 students have enrolled since his school opened its doors last month. A giant sign reading “Kurdish language course”, painted in the previously banned Kurdish national colours, marks the building in Batman’s central square. In October the local governor invited a Kurdish bard, Mahsun Kirmizigul, to perform before a crowd of 150,000 to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. His opening number was in Kurdish.

Such examples of tolerance may, however, mislead. Mr Unesi’s students have yet to begin their lessons. “That is because the authorities keep throwing up new bureaucratic hurdles,” he complains. First he was told to broaden doors to his classrooms and hang up more Turkish flags. Then he was told to build a fire escape “even though we have two of them and inspectors saw them.” Faced with such obstacles, not a single Kurdish-language course has held classes so far. The laws have changed, but the authoritarian mentality of local officials has not.

Hearts and minds are always harder to change than laws. It's also interesting to note the difference from the Kurdish situation in Turkey (one could include Syria and Iran as well) to that in Iraq:

The American-led occupation of Iraq, viscerally opposed by most Turks, has provided some relief for the Kurds. Around 3,500 Turkish lorries carrying food, fuel and other non-combat matériel for the Americans cross daily in and out of Iraq from the south-eastern province of Sirnak. The Americans have bought $150m-worth of Turkish goods since the end of the war, some of it from the south-east; more Turkish contracts worth some $400m are in the pipeline. But the Kurdish truck drivers who carry the stuff also see the freedom being enjoyed by their fellow Kurds in northern Iraq, who have been running their own affairs outside Baghdad’s control for over a decade. Kurdish-language porn may no longer be enough to satisfy them.

Nor should it be, nor should it be...

Update: Whoops, here's the link to The Economist's version of the story; unfortunately, it's pay per view...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:28 PM | Comments (1)

Martian chronicles

Okay, I can't quite say why, but I thought one of the comments on this BBC story suggesting that humans could survive the radiation exposure encountered during the estimated three year trip to Mars was pretty hilarious, especially after reading other earnest comments suggesting that the money spent on space travel could be better spent elsewhere, etc. etc.:

Will it be OK to smoke on Mars?

Andrew Forrow, Key West, Florida, USA

Thanks Mr. Forrow, you gave me a good laugh.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:02 PM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2003

Clippings

The Arab News has a commentary by a Dr. Mohammad T. Al-Rasheed that asks what's wrong with Pax Americana. His conclusion:

America, like any other country in the world, has its agenda. That is normal. It is also normal to dispute and resist that agenda if it is not favorable to our needs. But today we face an existential problem that precedes such finer points of political science. The Americans have never interfered with our religion or our institutions. If Bin Laden and his Talibanesque clique are the alternative, then we face the reality of having our books and tapes burned, our daughters not going to school, our education monopolized by the aphorisms of a certain creed, even our dress and diet controlled in a way that would make the ex-Soviet Gulags look like the Ritz. We will remain blind consumers who risk going back to tents when the oil runs out. How many of us look forward to that?

Had this run two years ago, I would have been more impressed. Speaking of when the oil runs out, or even when its revenue stream becomes insufficient to support the population of Arabia, a Raid Qusti wonders, also in the Arab News, whether free spending tourists -- believe it or not, the Saudis believe tourism will be its next big growth industry -- will want to visit:

The idea of going out to eat and seeing other people eating and enjoying their meal in a public place would not apply in this part of the world.

That is simply because other people do not want you to look at them and do not want to look at you either.

As for prayer times, Muslim or not, you and your family are kicked out — in a polite way of course — ten minutes before the call for prayer, even if you are in the middle of your meal.

Other disturbing signs that reflect our intolerance and rigidity appear in our streets and our malls — faceless people on signs.

The faces of men in an advertisement are covered with paint, tape or plaster. Others, displaying women are the same. Even the faces of children are blotted out — and let’s not forget about women’s products sold in pharmacies.

And then there is sexual segregation and what almost amounts to a phobia when men and women are together. How many times has a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight been delayed because stewards and stewardesses are busy rearranging seats because a man and a woman — for cultural reasons — feel they cannot sit next to each another?

A bracing reminder, if any was needed, of what life is like in that bizarre state.

Meanwhile, Asia Times Online has an interview with Dr Mohammed al-Shiekh Mahmood Sayam, who, in 1987, issued the call for the infitada from the al-Aqsa mosque. He offers this useful reading list for the aspiring terrorist:

Sayam's political vision was heavily influenced by the Islamic movement, and he admits to "learning from Syed Qutub [the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue executed by the Egyptian government] that Islam should prevail over all the world. From Imam Banna [Hasanul Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] I learned that jihad should be the way. From Imam Modudi [Syed Abul Ala Modudi, founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh] I learned that Koranic teachings should be dominant in the system of state. From the book of Imam Nadvi [Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, the Jamaat-i-Islami India chief who later became a writer], The Rise and Fall of Muslim and its Influence on Human History, I learnt of the role Muslims should play in the world community."

Speaking of Sayyid Qutb (at least, that's the spelling I've usally seen), Little Green Footballs points out this link to an online text of Milestones, one of Qutb's works. I haven't yet read it, and frankly, I'm not all that eager to, but at some point I might take a look...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:43 PM | Comments (2)

Milestone

Just banned my first IP address. I got tired of deleted all the spam comments from an ... ahem ... enlargement site (and no, not enlarging one's vocabulary).

Posted by Ideofact at 09:46 PM | Comments (2)

December 10, 2003

Imitation of Aquinas

Interesting idea in Bernard Cottret's Calvin: A Biography, which I've been reading and enjoying (certain passages are tremendously well-written). In a passage about Aquinas' Imitation of Christ, he suggests a precursor of what for me is one of the most difficult of Calvin's theological ideas, that of predestination:

If the concept of the sacrifice of Mass reappears in later Catholicism, the picture of salvation presented in the same text also anticipates predestination as it would later be theorized in Calvinism. "'It is I who should be praised in all my saints,' says Jesus, 'I who should be blessed above all and honored in every one of those whom I have thus elevated to glory and predestined, without any preceding merit on their part.'"

Posted by Ideofact at 11:20 PM | Comments (0)

No,

...which is the answer the playful question posed below. In a comment, Brian Ulrich said he'd take on the third to last graph of the essay, Does Islam Need a Luther or a Pope? by Edward Feser that ran on Tech Cenral Station, and I look forward to his remarks; I also hope Zack of Procrastination chimes in. I have a few more thoughts on the subject.

First, I'm rather astonished at the tone -- Feser seems equally willing to refight the Reformation as to relaunch the Crusades. Given what he says about the Qur'an -- "the Koran came to him straight from God, or so he tells us, and the reader must simply obey it." -- one wonders whether his Islamic Pope would be Muslim or Catholic. Similarly, his attacks on Protestantism are rather intemperate -- yes, the monarch in England may be the head of the Anglican Church as well as the state, but I think we'd all agree that the English political tradition was far more liberal than, say, that which pertained on the Italian penninsula, which began the Age of Enlightenment as warring city states, went through a brutal war of national unification in the 19th Century and was the progenitor of modern fascism in the 20th. With all due respect, I'd rather live under the tyranny of the Anglican state than the rule of law of Mussolini. Similarly, one can argue that the French Revolution represented a great birth of liberty (I tend toward Burke's view of it), but the Catholic Church was part of the ancien regime against which the fury of the revolution was directed. It wasn't until Napoleon declared himself emporer--the argument is whether he was the first fascist or the last Caesar--that the Church's fortunes improved. Again, give me the tyranny of the Anglican monarchy.

In opening his essay, Feser writes,

It has become the conventional wisdom in the two years since 9/11 that the trouble with Islam is that, unlike Christianity, it never had a Protestant Reformation. The idea seems to be this: Christianity was (so it is held) rigid and authoritarian before Luther and company came along and paved the way for liberal democracy, science, and all things modern and good; Islam's problem is that it remains stuck in its "Medieval phase," still awaiting Reformers of its own.

I'm not sure from where he's drawing this conventional wisdom -- certainly not from the pronouncements of any political leader I can think of, nor from the (albeit too few) political journals I fairly regularly read -- The New Republic, The National Review, The Weekly Standard, or The Nation. Anyone wih more than a passing familiarity with Islamic history and culture is aware that Islam has had any number of schisms, sects, schools of thought, reform movements and reactionaries over the centuries. It's certainly possible to make superficial comparisons to Christianity -- the Sunni-Shi'ite split following the Latin Catholic/Byzantine Orthodox split; Sufism and the Cathars; ibn Wahhab and Calvin or Luther, but these similarities are only superficial. Ibn Wahhab, for example, could just as easily be compared to the Iconoclasts, or that rigid Catholic reformer Savonarola. But really, beyond a few bloggers who like historical resemblances and discussions of this sort, is anyone seriously proposing that what the Muslim world needs is its own Luther tacking 95 theses (or perhaps fatwas) on the doors of the Great Mosque in Mecca? It seems to me that the heart of Feser's essay is a defense of the Church against historical misconceptions.

I don't have a problem with such efforts. To give one example, see my post (and the one above it) on Giordano Bruno and the recent book The Pope and the Heretic. In the book, Michael White argues, more or less, that Bruno was accused of heresy because he accepted the Copernican Solar System and was an avatar of reason in a dark age. I have a passing acquaintance with some of Bruno's works, and I can't help but conclude that he believed a lot of things that turned out to be right for the wrong reasons. (He also believed a lot of right things for the right reasons, and a lot of worng things for the wrong reasons. It's worth noting though that he was no dummy, by and large could follow the arguments of Copernicus, was in touch with Johannes Kepler and understood his astronomical work, and so on.) Bruno was, like much of the legitimate Catholic intelligentsia, under the spell of the Corpus Hermiticum; Bruno appropriated the ideas of Copernicus because heliocentrism fit his reading of the Hermetica. (It wasn't until a good Protestant by the name of Isaac Casaubon critiqued a work of Catholic orthodoxy -- one that not only, like Bruno, accepted the Hermetica's authenticity, but also gave it a revered place in Catholic doctrine -- that that particular bit of nonsense was exposed.) But to get to the point: Bruno held some views that were clearly heretical. White's contention that the Catholic Church burned him at the stake because he was an avatar of the scientific revolution or the age of reason is inaccurate, to say the least. But that being said, there was still that business about burning him at the stake. I can't imagine that Bruno felt, as the flames of the pyre began licking his ankles, any particular gratitude for the Catholic rule of law.

Bruno was, to use Feser's phrasing, his own authority. He had the misfortune to live in a time (1548-1600) when the Catholic authorities had the power of life or death over members of its "flock" who exercised such independence. I chose Bruno as an example largely because I don't find his writings particularly compelling (Paracelsus, who died seven years before Bruno was born, seems far more "modern"). Whether I care for Bruno's ideas or not (and note well, after flirting for a brief time with the Protestants, Bruno rejected their doctrinces out of hand), I can concede that his mind was own -- his property, to do with as he pleased. I might disagree with much, with everything, that he said and wrote and published, but I can also defend to the death his right to do so. Feser would like to concede the operations of conscience, intellect and imagination to a central authority -- to the Catholic Church. In the Islamic context, there is one group that would like to have the same power of life and death over those who do not toe the line of what they perceive to be orthodoxy -- the Islamists.

I might add something on the whole issue of the separation of Church and State -- I find it incredible that Feser argues that this was something respected by the Catholic Church prior to, or even after, the Reformation (in the Treaty of Augsburg, for example, the Church agreed that the religion of the prince or king or emporer of a state would be the religion of the masses, and those who didn't like it could lump it), but I'll leave that aside for now...

Posted by Ideofact at 11:00 PM | Comments (3)

December 08, 2003

Brief defense of Tyndale

I don't know where Dan Darling of Regnum Crucis is getting his information, but when he writes,

Tyndale, for example, translated various New Testament passages in a manner than reflected his anti-cleric biases. For example, in his translation, "Church" became "congregation," "bishop" became "overseer," and "priest" became "elder." He also omitted 1 Peter 2:13-14 altogether because they called upon Christians to obey the temporal authorities.

...I suspect he's not relying on an unbiased source (Thomas More, perhaps?). Among the volumes in the well-appointed Ideofact library is The 1534 Tyndale New Testament. While it doesn't follow the later Chapter/verse format, I believe the following passage:

Submit yourselves unto all manner ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether it be unto the king as unto the chief head: or unto rulers, as unto those who are sent of him, for the punishment of evildoers: but for the laud of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that ye put to silence the ignorance of the foolish men: as free, and not having the liberty for a cloak of maliciousness but even as the servants of God.

...corresponds to the New American Bible translation, 1 Peter 2:13-14,

Be subject to every human institution for the Lord's sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good. For it is the will of God that by doing good you may silence the ignorance of foolish people. Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God.

(Actually, that goes on to verse 16, but who's counting). As for Tyndale's translation of the Greek ekklesia as congregation, rather than Church, and so on, millions of words have been spilled over it (three-quarters of a million words by Thomas More alone). I'm not a Greek scholar; I googled the words and found polemics on both sides arguing one way or the other. I'm not going to add to that particular debate, but I wonder whether Dan is in any better position to translate first century Greek than I am.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:24 PM | Comments (2)

December 07, 2003

Infamy

If you click here, you can hear a recording of the bell of the U.S.S. Arizona.

I also found this worth reading:

The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

Everyone remembers the "date which will live in infamy" part -- worth reading the rest of the speech (which is quite short).


Posted by Ideofact at 11:01 PM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2003

New Entry

I know I said I'd have more to say about the essay linked immediately below, but after writing the first half of my critique I've run out of gas. I'll try to finish it tomorrow (personal obligations permitting) or Sunday.

In the meantime, harass Glenn Frazier to follow through on his promise (I'm intrigued by the teaser), and check out Elephant Rabbit's post on a mistress of Louis XIV's, who no less a historian than Jacques Barzun argues "obtained her post" by ... well, read the post.

I also found Buzz Aldrin's commentary in the Times on a next step for the space program of interest.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:40 PM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2003

Is the Pope Muslim?

I'd be interested to hear what others make of this piece, which seems off to me. I've argued before that I don't think the current situation in Islam is comparable to the Age of Reformation, and this piece, by Edward Faser, seems to confirm me in my opinion. But what's especially bizarre about it is that he seems intent on refighting the Reformation, and reducing Luther and Calvin (and, for that matter, Mohammad -- it seems to me that the three don't belong in the same class) to the level of "revolutionary socialist(s) or libertine(s)." And I can't quite square how, in the economy of faith, a hierarchical, aristocratic, quasi-feudal organization like the Catholic Church dispensing the faith in what it perceived to be the proper dosage squares with Hayek's distrust of absolutist and socialist organizations that ignore the consumer -- that is, the faithful -- and put all their trust in the all-knowing state.

That's my quick take, but I'll write more tomorrow. As I said, though, I'd love to see what Aziz, Zack, Brian or Dan thinks...


Posted by Ideofact at 11:42 PM | Comments (5)

Oh the weather outside...

It's actually snowing here in Washington, D.C. (well, just across the river from it, and not too many blocks from the Pentagon). I was getting ready to make fun of those fellow Washingtonians who run off to the supermarket at the first sign of a snowflake to buy vast quantities of bread and milk (fellow Philadelphians used to do the same thing) when my wife informed we were out of...bread and milk. Humiliating as it was, but I went to the grocery and picked up the required items (which seemed to be in short supply). To cover my embarrassment, I also bought wine, beer and a few other odds and ends, but I doubt I fooled anyone...

Posted by Ideofact at 10:58 PM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2003

Housekeeping

I've added a couple of links to the favorites list -- first, Dan Darling's Regnum Crucis (hey, even if he ends up blasting me for my response to his response, his Reformation timeline is not only an engaging read -- and given the subject, that's saying a lot -- but is pretty pithy as well), and Fantastic Planet, a blog currently (though not always and not exclusively) devoted to a line by line exegisis of the Gospel of Thomas. Happy glossing.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:56 PM | Comments (2)

The Final Frontier

I'm actually very excited by this. Of the original Apollo missions, my most vivid memories are of 13 (in no small part because of my father, who followed it closely and kept me updated, sometimes calling from work to tell me something he had heard -- a huge thrill when you're a little kid). Nevertheless, I think our finest moments in space lie ahead of us, and not behind.

Posted by Ideofact at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2003

Pearls before swine

Dan Darling of Regnum Crucis, a blog I confess I hadn't seen before, has taken issue with some posts of my own I won't bother to link (he's linked them all if you care to see them) on the Reformation & Islam. His critique starts here, and continues further up. It's lengthy, but there's a few points I should make in reply.

Darling writes, in response to an analogy I suggested in which an imaginary Islamic hierarchy prevented the faithful from reading the Qur'an as analogous to the situation of Christians prior to the translating zeal of the Protestants,

Ideofact here is presenting a false dilemma because he is presupposing that Catholic doctrine (the doctrine now, not the well-documented abuses or clerical corruption that occurred in its name) is both skewed and unbiblical - I don't believe that this is in fact the case or I wouldn't be Catholic. Furthermore, he is inadvertently repeating a piece of 500 year-old propaganda: that the Church sought to keep the Bible from the masses to prevent them from learning how messed up its teachings were. This is both demonstrably false and rather hypocritical given how freely Luther and others deliberately altered the canon of Scripture in order to remove those Deuterocanonicals like 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Sirach, and Wisdom that might otherwise contain "proof texts" for Catholic teachings concerning Purgatory, the saints, ect.

It is not my intention to refight the wars of the Reformation. To begin with, I should state that I'm at best a lapsed Protestant -- I grew up in a rather secular household, and while my religious roots, such as they were, were in something of a Calvinist denomination (and yes, my distant forefathers were in fact "Puritans"), my own views on religion are decidedly eclectic. The charming Camassia wrote of me, "...he has no particular attachment to orthodox Christianity that I can see," which is perhaps only partially true -- I have an attachment that derives more from aesthetics and mere curiosity than from any religious conviction. So I do not mean to cast aspersions on anyone's belief in, say, Purgatory, if only because, were it not for purgatory, we'd be missing, to give one example, a third of Dante's Divine Comedy.

That said, there was a great program of translation undertaken by the opponents of the rather repressive, corrupt and backward Catholic Church, and the Church's response was to insist that Latin was the only proper language for Greek and Hebrew scriptures. Luther, Tyndale, Coverdale and others let the cat out of the bag, and published translations of the Bible; as the Reformation raged, the Catholics held their Council of Trent to craft a response. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the Council notes that, during the fourth session, held on April 8, 1546,

...they declare at the same time that in matters of faith and morals the tradition of the Church is, together with the Bible, the standard of supernatural revelation; then taking up the text and the use of the sacred Books they declare the Vulgate to be the authentic text for sermons and disputations, although this did not exclude textual emendations. It was also determined that the Bible should be interpreted according to the unanimous testimony of the Fathers and never misused for superstitious purposes. Nothing was decided in regard to the translation of the Bible in the vernaculars.

It doesn't sound quite like the Catholic hierarchy was especially eager to provide believers with a text of the Bible in a language they could understand, which by and large was my point in the passage Darling critiques. They also argued that Church tradition has equal weight with Scripture, which is a little like equating Hadith with the Qur'an itself (of course, the Christian Bible, even for the most fundamentalist believers, is not regarded by Christians in quite the same way as the Qur'an is by Muslims). Church tradition wasn't precisely in accord with the Scriptures.

I think the implications of the Protestant insistince on the Scriptures, and nothing but the Scriptures, are well described in this commentary from the Asia Times (and thanks to both Meryl Yourish, whom I don't like to bother with links but read daily, and Judith Weiss, who sent Meryl the link):

Modern (as opposed to ancient Greek or Roman) democracy stems from the Protestant motto "solo scriptorum", "only the Bible", by which every man must interpret scripture for himself. To begin with, Protestantism was unimaginable without Jewish theologians (who exposed the incompatibilities of free will and original sin), not to mention Jewish bible translators. In such a world, congregations must elect their church elders (Presbyterians) or even their pastors (Congregationalists), rather than accept church hierarchy. If democracy rules ecclesiastical affairs, why not then secular affairs as well?

I quibble with the idea of Jewish Bible translators -- neither Luther (a clunky translator) nor Tyndale (a gifted one) were Jewish -- but the concept is basically sound: Once the monopoly of interpretation exercised by the Catholic Church was broken, and the faithful themselves were able, in a republican form, to choose their leaders in sacred matters, it was ridiculous for them to defer to aristocrats in secular affairs. Tyndale, by the way, was central in this -- his stated intention was to translate the Bible so that plough boys would know the word of God (he might have added better than the Pope and Bishops). In the Protestant project, there was a faith in the individual -- even humble individuals.

Contrast that with this example, quoted from Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. After noting that English Catholics began their own project to translate the Bible, Bobrick writes

...this represented a break from the past position of the Church. That position had been succinctly stated after the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492 by Cardinal Ximenes, the great biblical scholar and compiler of the Complutensian Polyglot, who discouraged a fellow bishop from translating Scriptures into Arabic for the instruction of the Moors. "It would be throwing pearls before swine," he said. "For the word of God should be wrapped in discreet mystery from the vulgar, who feel little reverence for what is plain and obvious. It was for this reason that our Saviour himslef clothed his doctrines in parables, when he addressed the people. The Scriptures should be confined to the three ancient languages, which God, with mystic import, permitted to be inscribed over the head of his crucified Son."

Addendum: In a later post in the series, Darling also makes this assertion:

No less statesmen than Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held what we would likely consider abhorrent and bigoted views towards both the Jesuits and Jews.

First, I think it's rather an odd equation -- Jesuits and Jews -- one can't help being Jewish, but it requires some effort to become a Jesuit. But beyond that, I would be interested to hear these abhorrent views quoted, particularly regarding Jews (there were quite reasonable grounds historically to hold Jesuits in rather low regard).

Posted by Ideofact at 11:32 PM | Comments (2)

December 01, 2003

Texts

I've long admired the work of Elaine Pagels, and have been reading with interest her latest work, Beyond Belief, which contrasts the doctrinaire version of Christianity which developed historically with the early history of the religion, during which there was no small amount of diversity of opinion as to what Jesus's coming meant, what his message was, and what it meant to be a Christian. At the heart of Pagel's work is a contrast between the Gospels of the Canon, particularly the Gospel of the John, and the Gospel of Thomas, which was one of the works found in 1945 among the papyrus codexes found in Egypt in 1945 and translated in toto in the Nag Hammadi Library.

Perhaps needless to say, I find such discussions fascinating. The Nag Hammadi find is certainly of major importance; while I haven't read the whole collection, I have found several texts worth pondering. I suppose, though, that what gives me pause is the argument made by some commentators that these previously lost tracts, which were denounced by the Orthodox and later suppressed by the Church as it grew in power and influence in the waning era of the Roman empire, represent a more authentic Christianity than the Gospels. They seem to discount the notion that the early Church fathers might have been capable of separating texts which captured what they understood, from tradition, from centuries of believers, from the writings and letters of their predecessors (not all of which are extant), what was authentic and what was corrupted.

Take for example the above linked edition of the Gospel of Thomas, translated by Marvin Meyer, and including a lenghty concluding essay by Harold Bloom. I picked it up over the weekend while, perhaps appropriately enough, while out Christmas shopping in a mega mall. I desperately needed a haircut, and just as desperately needed something to read while waiting in line for my turn.

I have no doubt that it's a fine translation (it reads much better than the version in the Nag Hammadi collection, and Meyer's notes are encyclopedic). But the dust flap gave me pause:

Reportedly dictated by Jesus to his brother, Judas Thomas the Twin, founder of the churches of the East, Thomas reveals a Jesus who merges with the wisdom of the Sophists, with Diogenes, Plato and Socrates.

Why a Jesus who sounds more like Sophists, Diogenes, Plato and Socrates would be more authentic than a Jesus who sounds like a Jewish Prophet is never quite made clear. In his introduction, Meyer notes that one of those early Christian attacks on heresy, the rather immodestly titled Refutation of All Heresies by Hippolytus of Rome, written in the third century, noted that one passage of the Gospel of Thomas came, not from Jesus, but rather from Hippocrates. Meyer notes a Greco-Roman current running through Thomas, and suggests that Jesus might well have been influenced by the Cynics, an interpretation Meyer believes is supported by the collection of sayings contained in the Gospel of Thomas. Jesus is reduced, in a memorable phrase quoted by Meyer, to a "peasant Jewish Cynic," and, apparently, what was revolutionary in the Synoptic Gospels, in John and later in Paul, was inauthentic.

We are at a great remove in time from the Council of Nicea, from the earlier era in which the Gnostic heresiarchs competed with the second and third generation of Church fathers who sought to exclude the former's constructs from the "one true faith." But it is worth noting that the Gospel of Thomas was found with 44 other texts, one of which tells us,

"He said, 'An image that has no likeness is the rationality of the soul,' so that he who said these things will understand... these now have become natural creatures -- even Chimaera and Cerberus and all the rest that were mentioned. They all came down and they cast off images. And they all became a single image. It was said, 'Work now!' Certainly it is a single image that became the image of a complex beast with many heads..."

And so on. The source of the excerpt is a parable from the ninth book of Plato's Republic, which was not immediately apparent to the translators of the Nag Hammadi library:

What has proved more difficult is to account for is the extent to which the Coptic version deviates from the Greek original. So much does it deviate from Plato that the tractate's first editors (1971) did not recognize it for what it is. The deviation has been accounted for in two ways. In the first, it is viewed as the product of inept translation... In the second, it is viewed as the product of gnosticizing redaction of the Greek original, a redacted version which was then translated into Coptic... These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and the truth may therefore be a mixture of both...

There is yet another explanation, not suggested here: That Plato was actually a gnostic philosopher, that the text contained in the Nag Hammadi library represents a more authentic Plato that was suppressed by the classicists, and that the Nag Hammadi library preserves one of the few authentic fragments of Plato's thought.

Posted by Ideofact at 10:38 PM | Comments (8)