26 April 2015

Great Commandment Prayer 2.0

May we love the Lord our God who is the One, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  May we love our neighbors as ourselves.  May we love our enemies who hate us.  And may we love one another, Christ Jesus, just as you loved us.  For there is no greater calling than to love.  Amen.

Your god is too small for my Universe

The title is an anonymous quote often misattributed to late 17th century monk and scientist Giordano Bruno.  Bruno had the temerity to posit that not only was the Earth not the center of the universe, but that the universe was infinite and there were countless planets with innumerable sapient and sentient species.  For which, of course, the Inquisition had him burned at the stake for heresy 17 February 1600.  His death marks the beginning of Western freethought.

What a puny little god humans worship.

By “god”, I refer primarily to the deity worshipped by the “Abrahamic” religions: Judaism, Samaritanism, Karaism, Christianity, and Islam.  However, it goes pretty much the same for any gods worshipped by any humans at any time since religion was invented.  This infinitesimally myopic viewpoint of the cosmos presents major problems in the face of the discoveries of the last and current centuries.  With its foundation crushed into dust, Terran religions need to reimagine their god into a form befitting the vastness of the universe as we know it today.

That this very juvenile planet Earth, a relative subquark in comparison to the vast expanse of the entire universe, is the center of attention for the deity or divine or supernatural force responsible for the whole kit and caboodle is pretty much the definition of exponential arrogance.  All Terran religions are geocentric; the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) go even further by being almost thoroughly anthropocentric.  Being a theist in this context necessarily means being a narcissist.  In our own image have we created God, as it were.

The Supreme Deity of the Israelites (Jews, Samaritans, Karaites), Christians, and Muslims was constructed in a cosmos nothing like the actually universe of which we have but an inkling even today.  This god, as we know him today, was invented by the Israelite ancestors of the modern-day Jews in a Canaanite landscape by a tribe of Arameans who after invading the Southern Levant adopted the dominant local language as their official political and religious tongue (Canaanite and ancient Hebrew are identical) and incorporated their tribal god into the local pantheon of deities. 

When they first appear on the scene, the Israelites were polytheistic, even if their polytheism was of the henotheist variety.  Archaeological and documentary evidence conclusively proves that the they remained so until well into the Persian period in the later fifth century BCE.  They adopted their monotheism from the Zoroastrianism of their Persian overlords but keeping their tribal deity, Yahuweh, as their main and later only god rather than trading him in for Ahura Mazda (Assara Mazas in Aramaic).

Per ancient Israelite cosmology, the universe, “ha-olam”, was divided earth, the sea, the heavens, and the underworld.  Earth, a circular disk, was in the center of everything.  The surface of the Sea surrounded the Earth, and under Earth was Sheol.  Across the Sea at the four corners of the earth were the Foundations of the Firmament, a dome holding back the waters above the sky from deluging the Earth.  Above the Firmament were said waters and the Gateway to Heaven.  Below Sheol were the Foundations of the Earth, and below these were the Great Deep.  That, my friends, was the total extent of the cosmos in which Yahuweh was conceived.

Furthermore, once merged into the cosmology of the surrounding Canaanite peoples, Yahuweh became one of the sons of El, of which there were seventy-two, one for each “nation” known to the Canaanites and their Israelite neighbors.  Some of these “sons of El” and other gods are mentioned in the Old Testament: the “Holy One” was a designation for Asherah, originally the wife of El and later adopted by the Israelites as consort of Yahuweh; El, or Elohim, originally the supreme father of all the “sons of El”; Elyon, usually translated as the “Most High”, was a title of Hadad, rival of Yam or Yaw with whom the Isaelites later identified their god Yahuweh.

Hadad is the deity most often referred to as simply “Baal”, which simply means “Lord”, though it was a title due to which all the “sons of El”.  The sixteenth verse of the second chapter of the Book of Hosea indicates that at one time the Israelites even used that title for their native deity, as in Baal Yahuweh (“And it shall be at that day, saith the Lord, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali.” KJV). 

The Elephantine papyri clearly shows that the Israelite military colony there worshipped not only Yahuweh but Anath (consort of Yahuweh), Bethel, and several other deities at their temple, including the Egyptian god Khnum, whose own temple was immediately adjacent.  Interestingly, the papers refer to the inhabitants of the colony as Arameans; history clearly demonstrates them to be the same people as the later Jews and Samaritans.

Shaddai, by the way, means Destroyer rather than simply Almighty, so maybe there was a kind of Shiva thing going on there.

Several archaeological sites in Palestine have clear temples or shrines to both Yahuweh and Asherah, including the pre-Assyrian conquest temple in the city of Samaria.  The later city of Jerusalem did not even exist until the misnamed “Second” Temple period; an urban center that did exist just a few kilometers away had monuments to both Yahuweh and Asherah.  This pairing is universal, occurring at every archaeological site in Palestine (or the Southern Levant, if you prefer) at which a “pre-exilic” Bet-Yahuweh (“House of Yahuweh”) has been identified.

Okay, so the Israelites were long-time polytheists.  The only real significant point here is that the Israelite universe was pretty tiny.  Their entire conception of the universe, what there was of it, was entirely focused on this planet.  Everything beyond Earth was mere background and window-dressing.  You can’t even say their solar system was geocentric because they had no conception of a “solar system”.  Not until well into the Ptolemaic period (rule of the Egypt-based Ptolemy dynasty), when they adopted the Aristotelian geocentric universe of seven planets arranged in concentric circles.

The god which the early Israelites developed fit their tiny universe very well, and it wasn’t very much of a stretch when some of their later descendants adopted the Aristotelian model.  The adjective “Ptolemaic” can also refer to noted scientist Claudius Ptolemy of second century CE Alexandria.  His model improved on that of Aristotle and was the one adopted by the Church.  In it, a spherical Earth was at the center, surrounded by concentric spheres of the planets Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, then the fixed stars, and finally the Primum Mobile). 

Muslim scholars shared this view of the universe with their European counterparts.  Both cosmologies, the ancient Israelite and the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic, are represented in the Talmud. 

So this god, or God, whom the ancient Israelites called Yahuweh and their rabbinic Judaist descendants call Lord or The Name, whom Christians call by a variety of titles, and whom Muslims (along with Arab-speaking Jews and Christians) call Allah, the God of the Tanakh, of the Bible, and of the Quran, held sway over a tiny, tiny area compared to the actual physical universe as we know it today.  The cosmology of all three religions, and indeed the theology, doctrine, dogma, and creeds of those religions, stands upon that foundation.

These three religions, as well as every other religion on Earth, are based on the idea that one group of one 200,000 year old race (subspecies) of one species on one 4.5 billion year old, 1.12 trillion km3 planet in one planetary system out of the possible 40 billion such capable planets in the Milky Way galaxy of 200 billion stars.  And that is just one galaxy among the estimated 500 billion in the Universe which itself is around 213 duovigintillion (69 zeroes) km3 in volume and 13.8 billion years old.

Shortly before his death, Carl Sagan asked, “How is it that hardly any religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘Wow, this is even better than we thought!  The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’?  Instead they say, ‘No, no, no!  My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way!’.”

Truly, this god of the mythical Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Ishmael and of the historical Omri, David, Jesus, and Mohammad, this god defined and limited by the miniscule cosmos in which he was conceived, is too small for our actual universe and if not reimagined and expanded and redefined becomes reduced to little more than a petty local bully and tyrant.  Give me a god I can respect, a god I can believe in without feeling ridiculous, without having to suspend my disbelief and shutter away my rational mind and intellect.  Please.  Because I really do want to believe.

18 April 2015

A Universal Creed

I am a Terran, a citizen of Earth.  The whole world is my home, and all its people my brothers, sisters, and cousins of the One Human Race.  

As a child of the Universe and an instrument of peace, I will strive to bring love where there is hatred; pardon where there is injury; union where there is discord; trust where there is doubt; hope where there is despair; light where there is darkness; joy where there is sadness.  

May I seek to console more than to be consoled; to understand more than to be understood; and to love more than to be loved.  

For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are forgiven; and it is in dying that we live.  Amen.  So say we all.

(Based on the Peace Prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but actually written by a French monk in 1912, a quote from ADM William Adama of the Battlestar Galactica, and on my own personal slogan.)

(The recently released design for an International Flag of Planet Earth)

14 April 2015

What Must Be Said, by Gunter Grass

In honor of the great writer and poet Gunter Grass, I am publishing his poem here in his memory.

What must be said
Why have I kept silent, held back so long,
on something openly practised in
war games, at the end of which those of us
who survive will at best be footnotes?

It's the alleged right to a first strike
that could destroy an Iranian people
subjugated by a loudmouth
and gathered in organized rallies,
because an atom bomb may be being
developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name
that other land in which
for years – although kept secret –
a growing nuclear power has existed
beyond supervision or verification,
subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,
before which my own silence has bowed,
seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,
leading to a likely punishment
the moment it's broken:
the verdict "Anti-semitism" falls easily.

But now that my own country,
brought in time after time
for questioning about its own crimes,
profound and beyond compare,
has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,
(in what is purely a business transaction,
though glibly declared an act of reparation)
whose speciality consists in its ability
to direct nuclear warheads toward
an area in which not a single atom bomb
has yet been proved to exist, its feared
existence proof enough, I'll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel's atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
will not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.

And granted: I've broken my silence
because I'm sick of the West's hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger
we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help
to Israelis and Palestinians alike,
to all those living side by side in enmity
in this region occupied by illusions,
and ultimately, to all of us.

G√ľnter Grass
Translated by Breon Mitchell