Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Reason of Unreason" - José Ortega y Gasset and the Revolt of the Masses

In 1930, as Spain teetered on the cusp of fascism, José Ortega y Gasset penned one of his most famous works, The Revolt of the Masses. In approaching this work, we must be mindful of the historical context in which it was born. Spain, at this stage, was mired in an internal struggle for power that would culminate in civil war and the eventual triumph of fascist General Franco, who - with Nazi support - assumed power in 1939. When Ortega wrote this book, the horrors of Franco's regime still lay in the future, but the seeds of this regime - like all such fascisms, predicated on fear, ignorance and a rank form of nationalism - were already being sowed. The nation was crippled by divisions, with the population split into a wide plurality of irreconcilable factions. There were, on one side, the monarchists and Catholics. On the other, the socialists and communists. Many more were caught somewhere in the middle. I do not know for sure, but I imagine that the work in question was to a large extent a reaction to - and warning against - precisely these divisive, popularly led movements.

Reading the book now, we may be taken aback by the disdain Ortega heaps upon "masses", itself a term that even the most shamelessly haughty of us today would baulk at using. For Ortega, the "mass-man" emerges for the first time in the 20th century as a fulcrum of political power, and - as a consequence of his ignorance and his critical lack of preparedness to govern - threatens the very basis of civilization. This "mass-man" fails to understand the lessons of history - forever facing forwards, as he inevitably must, because he believes himself to be the apex of history - and he rejects the possibility of there existing an authority any higher than himself. The culmination of the mass-man's ascent to power lies in the emergence of what Ortega terms "hyperdemocracy", "in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure". Mass-man, however, lacks the competence to run a state - such a job is presumably best left with the "artisans", as Ortega puts it - and this was the source of Ortega's angst: how could civilization persist in such unworthy hands?

In the largely egalitarian democracies in which we live today ("one man, one vote") such thoughts must strike us as repugnantly conceited, if not outright dangerous. Such open disdain for quotidian folk (I struggle to find a better euphemism for "masses") runs against our modern democratic principles, and one might find it quite easy to draw a direct line from such disdainful views to the eugenic mania of various mid 20th century ideologies. If we start isolating swathes of the population as being somehow below our contempt, then what logical reason do we retain to defend them from persecution or extermination? However, I must defend this work against such charges, since in referring to the "masses" Ortega makes it clear that he has in mind no specific race, class or creed: the overwhelming majority of us comprise this gormless, faceless "mass", so I take Ortega's work predominantly as a warning against "falling in with the herd" (to invoke an unsuitably trite idiom) rather than as the disparaging identification of an inherently defective class of people. To the extent that Ortega has a specific group in mind, it appears to the burgeoning bourgeoisie class, a group - then as now - that scarcely requires our dolorous coddling. 

Nonetheless, we exist in a political environment that - quite rightly, for the most part - discourages the gradation of human being into superior or inferior classes. That way, as the crimes of the 20th century still show us, leads to the greatest realisations of misery. The political zeitgeist of the current age is increasingly one of toleration, mutual respect and individual sovereignty - once again, we can count our blessings that it should be so. However, for all the unquestionable benefits of such politics, it also runs the risk of mistaking equality for crass undifferentiation: that, in a system where all should be granted equal political rights, that all political or social claims - and those who espouse them - deserve to be treated with completely undifferentiated and uncritical respect. Even in America - a supposed meritocracy of almost Darwinian degrees - the idea that every political opinion is as valid as the next one, has led to a kind of intellectual morass where the possibility of an honest, intellectual inquiry into the fitness of a given idea - particularly in the domain of mass media - has completely vanished.

Ortega puts it like this:

"The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."

Now many Americans may baulk at the suggestion that "to be different is to be indecent" in the avowedly individualistic context of American politics, but I believe it rings true. The peculiarities of the US electoral system renders the possibility of a sizeable third-party presence completely moot, with the entire political dialogue in the country consequently entirely confined to that which is most electorally convenient to the two major parties. Issues that do not carry a clear electoral advantage to either of these parties are simply ignored or glossed over. I'm certainly not one to suggest that the two parties lack clear ideological differences as others might, but however unique they may be in constitution, the presence of only two major political voices clearly dilutes the potential for open and honest political dialogue.

In the first place, each party knows that it need only discredit the other party in order to win power - it needn't trouble itself selecting the best policies from a wide plurality of options, for example, which would be necessary if their primary objective were to govern effectively on behalf of the American people. Rather, it need only seek to scandalise the positions of the opposing party: if the other party finds itself discredited, the populace is left, after all, with only one alternative. The result is a ongoing process of acrimonious gainsaying, in which neither side is truly prepared to commit itself to any policies that might benefit the other electorally, completely irrespective of their merits. This process leads not to a confluence of positions between the two parties as many have suggested, but rather an increasing dichotomisation. For the first time, the most conservative Democratic congressman is more liberal than the most liberal Republican congressman, and this makes the possibility of compromise on any number of important issues increasingly low. There are several flow-on effects to this.

The first is that electoral politics is increasingly portrayed as a two-horse race, and that all media narratives must inevitably cohere to such a portrayal. This leads to an endless and evermore tedious cycle of promiscuous politicisation, where literally every event - no matter how insignificant - is pitched as yet another battle waged in the ongoing war between the blue and red teams. This leads us to further polarisation, where the supporters of each side believe quite sincerely that all the nation's woes can be attributed to the glaring sins of the opposite side. For their part, the media - fearful of losing 50% of their market - are increasingly apprehensive about reporting unambiguous facts that may be detrimental to one side, and therefore muddy every issue by unthinkingly - yet somehow meticulously - presenting the deliberately obfuscatory "spin" of both sides on every issue. The public are therefore starved of quality information, and - with the lack of any third party to keep the two major parties honest - the Republicans and Democrats find themselves receding further and further from reality into the safe, hermetically sealed discourse of partisan politics.

The increasing polarisation of American politics presents a second problem. With each party virtually guaranteed around 40% of the vote1, that leaves both with the need to target their message with increasing specificity to the remaining 20%. Now despite what they might like to think about themselves, these unaffiliated 20% are generally not independent-minded people, heroically guarding their vote until a full, rational analysis of the respective party platforms has been completed, but rather low-information dolts who are capable of being swung to one side or the other for the most trivial of reasons. Since these are the people who decide elections one way or another, the level of political discourse is severely downgraded and the micro-targeting strategies of each of the major parties lead us to policies which yield nothing beyond the most asinine, populist pap. Now populism in itself is not necessarily something that should concern us (sometimes the best ideas also happen to be the most popular), but when the entire political process tends inexorably towards rank populism (because neither party can win power without this middling 20%) then we start to have the kind of problems that Ortega has warned us about.

Until now I have spoken as though both of the major parties deserve their share of blame for the current malaise in US political discourse, but I think such a portrayal would be disingenuous and just another example of the insidious need to render US politics as a two-horse race. Rather, when it comes to leading political discourse down into the sewers of rank, unthinking populism, the Republicans must clearly accept the lion's share of the blame. It has long been recognised that conservatives in the US have hitched their wagon to the forces of anti-intellectualism, forgoing open and honest policy debates in favour of the much more poisonous methods of the deliberately eristic and paranoid. Once you have completely abandoned the pretence of "facts" and "reason", your only justification now lies in the realm of the instinctive and the popular. To protect these justifications from the harsh light of reality, it becomes necessary to sacralise instinctive, populist politics by placing them beyond any possibility of rational reproach. This is achieved via the advancement of the notion that to reproach the political opinions of the "common man" on rational or empirical grounds is to engage in "elitism": the views of each man must be considered inherently valid and to dispute this claim is to violate the very basis of democracy. I think such a view - in and of itself - is rather cynical, but not necessarily pernicious. The trouble arises when "the masses" adopt it as a pseudo-religious mantra.

What we have now in the American populace is the idea that to simply have a political opinion carries with it its own justification, and that it needn't be justified any further to anyone. To believe in something, in a principled way, is inherently meritorious and that no-one has the right to disabuse one of that notion. This process culminates with Ortega's notion that "the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will": namely, everyone has the obligation to respect the intrusion of my "commonplace" opinion, no matter how ignorant or inapt it may be. All views are inherently valid, every man a qualified authority on that which he happens to be passionate.

Yet, to the extent he believes himself to lie beyond any possibility of reproach (what politician, after all, has ever won votes by telling him otherwise?), the "mass-man" can accept the authority of no-one beyond himself. The rejection of scientific and political authorities - under the banner of "freedom" - is a particular feature of modern Republicanism, though it happens to be one presaged by Ortega in the "mass-man" some 80 years ago:

"...the modern mass finds complete freedom as its natural, established condition, without any special cause for it. Nothing from outside incites it to recognise limits to itself and, consequently, to refer at all times to other authorities higher than itself... He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes. Why not, if, as we have seen, nothing and nobody force him to realise that he is... subject to many limitations..."

This arrogance, obdurate certainty and complete disdain for authority beyond himself leads the "mass-man" to a sickening degree of self-congratulatory selfishness. To the extent that he has found himself born into a comfortable position, he sees no need to protect and maintain the kind of structures - including strong government - that allowed him to be born into such privilege in the first place. The plight of future generations - or present generations born into quite different circumstances - should be left entirely to chance. The government - or any other organisation which challenges the quite gratuitous autonomy of the "mass-man" - must be challenged and rejected at every step. Consequently, the "mass-man" is "incapable of creating or conserving that very organisation [namely, the civilised state] which gives his life the fullness and contentedness on which he bases this assertion of his personality". Ortega continues:

"...the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part, just as we find the sun in the heavens without our hoisting it up on our shoulders. No human being thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him; it belongs to the sum-total of what "is there," of which we say "it is natural," because it never fails. And these spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organisation, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin., since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things."

It is for this reason - the complete lack of respect for or appreciation of social structures that took centuries to erect - that Ortega feels the "mass-man" threatens civilisation. The Republicans would be his modern-day equivalent. The demure capitulation of at least one of the major US political parties to this new "mass-man" and his abhorrent politics has left the entire political system impoverished, with all discourse now conducted in thrall of the lowest common denominator. The possibility of sensible, rational debate has been completely exhausted by a climate in which the populace have been pandered to and indulged to such a degree that they no longer have the capacity to recognise the limits of their wisdom. A child who is not used to being told "no" will not grow-up into a mature, thoughtful and considerate adult and that is the dilemma facing us today. The genie of simply untethered freedom (i.e. that which has been granted without any corresponding responsibilities) and entitlement has been taken from the bottle, and we may find it difficult to replace him. How can a child who has grown up to respect no authority beyond itself ever be told otherwise?

 So, what to do? What lessons can we draw from Ortega? I think that the most sage advice we can take from  Revolt of the Masses is the idea that there are such things as legitimate authority, and that we shouldn't be so hasty in sacrificing the need for such authority on the altar of democratic liberalism and tolerance. The events of the mid-20th century rightly made us wary of the dangers of unchecked political authority, but that doesn't mean we should race as far as possible in the other direction. There are people who understand the world far better than we, and we should have no qualms about ceding them at least some power to do what is right for us. If they are unsuccessful to this end, we retain the hard-won right to vote them out.

 Ultimately, mass populist movements, who respect no perspective beyond their own, need to be challenged, no matter how electorally inconvenient this might be. We need to abandon the idea that all opinions are equally valid and that all deserve to be listened to. We already do this when we marginalise those at the fringes of political discourse (the 9/11 Truthers, the Birthers etc.), we just need to be a little more discriminating. As far as the Republican Party is concerned, we can take some solace from the fact that the unthinking and unfeeling crassness of its electoral strategy is teetering, and has been rejected at the last two presidential elections. The reports of its impending death are surely exaggerated, though it is clear that they must start listening to the voices of a much more diverse electorate if they are to enjoy any future success. Perhaps they might start by reading this book, and recognising the inherent dangers of their current strategy of populist pandering and reactionary anti-statism.


1) This partly has to do with brand recognition, and partly has to do with tribal politics. The "brand recognition" of the parties means, for instance, that the GOP is forever seen as the party of small government, despite all evidence to the contrary. So people will vote for the GOP as the small government party despite the massive debts run up by recent GOP administrations, their appalling records on civil liberties and so on. Petty tribalism is also a factor now. There are many people who will never vote for one of the parties - regardless of what policies they espouse - simply because they have been conditioned to hate that party in the current electoral climate. It is here that US politics, as much as anywhere else, begins to resemble a sport.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 5 (609 BC - 538 BC)

The Babylonian Invasion

After the death of King Josiah, Judah was thrown into a period of political chaos which culminated in its invasion at the hands of the Babylonians. At least as far as the Biblical record can be trusted, Josiah was able to oversee the complete centralisation of power in Judah, to institute the formation of a monolithic religion and to apparently unite the nation and its surrounding territories - violently, if necessary - under a single nationalist ideology. Upon his death, his immediate political project seems to have been undone in a hurry and the nation began to be torn apart, both from within and without.

The spark for all these difficulties can be identified with the decline of Assyrian Empire and the resulting power vacuum it created. Initially, this spurred an assertion of independence in Judah: free from the Assyrian yoke, Josiah was able to implement his political program in Judah without interference and Judah stood - for perhaps the first time in its history - as a strong, dominant power in the region. In the shadows of the Assyrian empire, however, emerged two more empires: those of Babylonia (who delivered the final blow to the Assyrian empire in 605 BC) and Egypt (who had allied themselves with Assyria). Judah found itself trapped between these two powers - both geographically and politically - and the competing forces would eventually tear the nation apart. Like a planet passing between two suns, Judah found itself pulled towards two powerful spheres of influence simultaneously, and the internal strain generated would prove too much.

Josiah, as we saw in the last post, allied himself with the Babylonians against the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies. After he was killed in battle by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, his son, Jehoahaz, was installed on the throne by "the people of the land" (i.e. the same coalition that had installed Josiah). The Egyptian military presence, which by this time had stretched its influence far into the Levant, ensured that a king without sympathies to the Egyptian empire would not last long. Indeed, Jehoahaz was deposed just three months into his reign by the Egyptian Pharaoh and sent into exile in Egypt. He was replaced by king Jehoiakim, who agreed to make Judah a vassal state and to pay an onerous tribute to the Egyptians. In order to do this, he "exacted the silver and the gold from the people of the land" (2 Kings 24:35), another indication of the hardship placed on rural communities by imperial conquest. Signs of reprieve would fleetingly arrive in short time, though.

In 605 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians decisively in a battle at Carchemish, and Jehoiakim used the opportunity to transfer allegiance to the Babylonians in return for their protection. Babylon agreed, and for the next three years Judah was a Babylonian vassal state. Here, though, his allegiance began flip-flopping periodically between the Egyptians and the Assyrians, which should give some indication of the confused political state in the region during his reign. With the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians continuing apace, he transferred his allegiance back to the Egyptians and ceased paying tribute to Babylon sometime shortly before 600 BC. The reasons behind his equivocation are not easy to elucidate with any certainty, but his switching of allegiances may reflect his judgement on the state of the war (i.e. which side appeared more likely to claim victory in the region) or - perhaps more likely - the divided loyalties that existed within Judah itself. As I shall explain in more detail below, there was apparently a genuine rift that existed in Judah at the time about where it's loyalties should be placed: with Egypt, with Babylon or with neither. Jehoiakim's dithering on the issue may simply be a reflection of the irreconcilable rifts that existed within his court.

In any case, the Babylonian reaction to this transference of loyalty was predictably swift and harsh, and by 598 BC the Babylonians had come to occupy the majority of the land of Judah and were knocking on the gates of Jerusalem. It was in this year that Jehoiakim died without explanation. Some have averred that the Biblical text implies that he was killed by marauding bands of foreign warriors (cf. 2 Kings 24:2) but the Bible doesn't say so specifically, noting simply that Jehoiakim "slept with his ancestors" (v. 6). In any case, it's difficult to see how he might have been exposed directly to the presence of such foreign warriors when Jerusalem apparently stood strong for several more months after his death. The possibility of a domestic plot to end his life cannot be discounted, as there is Biblical precedent for the assassination of kings in siege situations: for instance, the murder of King Pekah in the Kingdom of Israel in the face of the Assyrian advance in 734 BC (see part 3). Jehoiakim had also apparently angered religious figures in the nation during his reign through his persecution of prophets (Uriah was killed, and Jeremiah put on trial for his life at the hands of the king), and the religious figures in Jerusalem must have held considerable political clout in the city since the reforms of Josiah. Whatever the case, the final defence of Jerusalem was left to Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin, but he was capable of resisting the Babylonians for only 3 months. The fortified walls of Jerusalem were finally breached, and the Babylonian forces spilled into the city in 598 BC.

Jehoiachin submitted voluntarily to the Babylonians, and was taken immediately into forced exile to live within the city of Babylon. He was joined by many other members of the Jerusalem elite, including Ezekiel (who we will discuss below) and other members of the Jerusalem priesthood. Jehoiachin's story shall be resumed shortly. For now, though, we will focus on the events within Judah following the first Babylonian invasion and the deposition of their king.

Rebellion and Exile

 After sending King Jehoiachin into exile, the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II installed a man by the name of Zedekiah onto the throne in his place. Predictably, Zedekiah was to act as a puppet-king to Nebuchadrezzar II and would be required to pay onerous tributes to the Babylonian empire. As was an all too common in the history of Israel and Judah, however, Zedekiah decided after just three years to turn away from the obligations he had towards his conquerors and to sow the seeds of rebellion.

In 594 BC he hosted an international conference in Jerusalem, where leaders were summoned from the nearby regions to discuss (presumably) their relationship with the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian king naturally viewed this activity as subversive, and requested that Zedekiah visit him in Babylon to explain his actions and to reaffirm his loyalty to the king. This apparently patched things up for a while, but the decisive break came when Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians and allied himself with the Egyptians in the year 589 BC. The Babylonians invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem for a second time, though this siege proved to be more gruesome and prolonged. In 587/586 BC, the Babylonians forces camped outside the walls of Jerusalem for months, preventing anyone (or anything) from entering or leaving. The horrors of such a city siege in the ancient world are difficult to overstate. Cities were so dependant on rural areas to supply it with provisions, that when such avenues of supply were cut-off the city was usually only able to sustain itself for a matter of weeks before starvation and disease began to run rampant. It is worth quoting the Biblical account of this siege (Lamentations 4) at length to convey the abject misery it entailed:

How the gold has grown dim,
   how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
   at the head of every street.

The precious children of Zion,
   worth their weight in fine gold—
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
   the work of a potter’s hands!

Even the jackals offer the breast
   and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
   like the ostriches in the wilderness.

The tongue of the infant sticks
   to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
   but no one gives them anything.

Those who feasted on delicacies
   perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
   cling to ash heaps.


 Happier were those pierced by the sword
   than those pierced by hunger,
whose life drains away, deprived
   of the produce of the field.

The hands of compassionate women
   have boiled their own children;
they became their food
   in the destruction of my people.

The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
   he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
   that consumed its foundations.

The will of the king and his immediate entourage were soon broken by the conditions that had left such an indelible imprint on the mind of the author of Lamentations, and they attempted to flee the city through a hole that they had made in the wall. The Babylonians had the city completely surrounded, however, and Zedekiah was soon apprehended. For his role in the rebellion, he watched as his sons were" slaughtered... before his eyes", had these same eyes "put out" by the soldiers and was then carried away - blind, childless and "in fetters" - to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). His subsequent fate is not recorded, but he would prove to be the last ever king of Judah.

The fate of those left behind in the city, however, was no less grim. The Babylonians immediately sacked the Temple - the last holy place remaining in Judah, and quite literally the earthly house of YHWH - breaking its "bronze pillars", taking away "the pots, the shovels, the snuffers, the dishes for incense, and all the bronze vessels used in the temple service" as well as all "the gold, and what was made of silver" (v. 13-15). The Temple - along with the kings house and much of the rest of the city - were "burnt down" (v. 9) and the great walls around the city were also destroyed (v. 10). Much of the population - certainly all of the remaining elite - were carried away into exile in Babylon. According to the Biblical account, the only people who were left in Judah were "the poorest people of the land, to be vine-dressers and tillers of the soil" (v. 12). While some of these accounts might be viewed as somewhat embellished, the archaeological record does paint a picture of widespread destruction and a precipitous decline in population within Judah during the period of Babylonian exile. The economic aftermath of the exile will be explored more fully in part 6, but for now we need only note that Judah had been lain to waste and the last embers of its independence had been extinguished. Judah was now just another Babylonian province.

The Resistance

With the Temple and the king's residence destroyed, and with all the elite members of Jerusalem now deported, the royal Davidic lineage was at an end. In its place, the Babylonians elected a governor named Gedeliah, who was a member of a prominent Jerusalem family at the time. At this point, the society of Judah (or what remained of it) was divided between professing loyalty to Egypt, professing loyalty to Babylon and those who rejected loyalty to both. Those who believed that the loyalties of the Judahites should lie with Babylon could mostly be found among the exiled populations, and I'll address them in the next section. Here, though, it's important to demonstrate the political ambivalence that divided those who remained behind.

We learn from the Book of Jeremiah (a prophet active at the time of the Babylonian exile, though we cannot be sure how much of the material in this book can be traced directly back to him) that immediately after assuming power, Gedeliah was viewed as a target for assassination by certain revolutionary Judahite groups (Jer 40:13-16). This is one crucial difference between the Babylonian occupation and the earlier Assyrian occupation: in this instance, the occupation does seem to have been met by an organised resistance, as compared with some hundred years of relative stability in the Assyrian case. According the the account in Jeremiah 41, one "Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama" went to eat bread with Gedeliah along with ten of his men in the year 582 BC - under what pretext, we cannot be sure. In any case, Ishmael and his men used the opportunity to "[strike] down Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan with the sword and [kill] him" (41:2), before laying waste to all the guards and the Judahite consort present as well. We must be clear what this act represents: a political assassination in protest against imperial designs. This kind of reactionary militarism was to become a regular occurrence in the history of Judah and Israel, and we shall explore similar instances in future posts.

In the Biblical account, though, the actions of the assassin are rather unequivocally denounced. In order to emphasise the mindlessly violent disposition of the perpetrator, we get gory details about his future movements. In addition to murdering all the Judahites present in Gedeliah's court, Ishmael during his escape enconounters some eighty pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to leave offerings at the Temple. For seemingly no reason, he simply slaughters seventy of them, before crudely disposing of their bodies in a well (itself an unthinkably hostile gesture, given the rules which govern burial of the dead in Judaism). The remaining ten men are then kept as hostages, and remain with Ishmael as he attempts to flee. The polemical subtext of this account is rather clear: Ishmael (and presumably other would-be resisters) weren't really acting in the best interests of Judah, and were in fact little better than common thugs who did not hesitate to slaughter their own people. This appears to be the Biblical view, but it stands to reason that from an alternative perspective, these groups who violently opposed the Babylonian occupation probably saw themselves as freedom fighters, who would have deeply resented the pro-imperial overtures emanating from the exiled community in Babylon (and preserved in Biblical books like Ezekiel and Jeremiah). What we really have here, then, is yet another manifestation of the moral ambiguities inherent to political violence: one man's terrorist is always another man's freedom fighter.

At this point Ishmael decides to flee for "the Ammonites" with his hostages, but is stopped on the way by a Judean militia headed by one "Johanan son of Kareah". Given that the king of Judah was in exile at this time - along with virtually all the other people of power in the region - it seems likely that this militia must have been a private, self-assembled one which operated with relative autonomy - though towards what aims we cannot be certain. The historicity of this specific scene needn't concern us especially, but what it does appear to show is a state of lawlessness and violence, where the normal structures of society had completely broken down, and competing militia groups had risen up to fill the power vacuum. This is partly speculation on my part, but it does seem to be borne out by the Biblical account.

In any case, Johanan is unable to contain Ishmael at this encounter, and the latter flees. This leaves Johanan with a quandary: he knew that there would soon be a Babylonian reprisal for the assassination of their puppet leader and he knew that the Judahite people (including himself) would be left to bear the consequences. As a result, he attempts to organise for his group to flee to Egypt at the first opportunity. At this point, Jeremiah is depicted as delivering them (and other would-be runaways) a prophecy from God, an order to remain in the land of Judah. The prophet is rebuffed, though, and taken with the aspiring refugees into the land of Egypt. In the meantime, the Babylonians invade the land of Judah for a third and final time, quashing definitively whatever little resistance there remained to meet them.

This account of the travails of Johanan and Jeremiah in the Bible may not have much basis in historical fact, but they almost certainly reflect the kind of situation the Judahites were faced with in their first decade and a half under Babylonian occupation. Firstly, the fact that the governor of Judah was assassinated and the fact that the Babylonians still had at least some militia forces to mop up in their final invasion in 582 BC indicates that there was violent resistance to their imperial designs within Judah that - in the absence of any government - must have been spontaneously organised. The reasons why the Babylonians may have been met with a degree of opposition that the Assyrians never seem to have faced are worth exploring briefly.

Now it is certainly plausible enough that there was popular resistance to the Assyrian occupation as well - the available historical sources documenting this earlier period are far more sparse than those detailing the Babylonian occupation - but the reaction in the Babylonian case does seem to have been markedly more vehement and more sustained (the Assyrians, for example, were never required to seize the territory in three separate waves of military campaigning). In part, this may have been a reaction to two different modes of empire. In the Assyrian case, much time and effort was expended in its vassal states investing in "nation-building" (to use the modern terminology), particularly so far as governance and economic growth were concerned. It may have been borne of a rather paternalistic chauvanism, but the Assyrians took pride in exporting their systems of writing, account-keeping and governance, and the consequence was a rapid growth in urbanisation in many of the regions under the Assyrian yoke (including Judah). Where their vassal states experienced genuine economic growth, the benefit to Assyria came in the form of increased tribute. In other words, the Assyrian model of empire building had the capacity to benefit both the empire and the vassal state economically (much in the same vein as the later Roman empire), which - at least in the case of Judah - may have dampened popular resistance towards the empire.

The Babylonians, on the other hand, appear to have had a rather different modus operandi, at least in the Judahite case. Here, the ruling city of Jerusalem was looted for everything it was worth in the first invasion, and presumably little was left that might have been used for restimulating economic growth and international trade. In the second invasion, the power structure at the centre of the state was completely dismantled, and most of those capable of wielding political power over the territory (including most of the scribes, priests and statesmen) were sent into exile. The loss of such experience and skill from the centre of the Judahite society rendered any possibility of an ordered, productive society ever re-emerging from the glowing embers of the conquered state far less likely. Finally, after the third invasion, the Babylonians seem to have abandoned any pretence of governing the land of Judah at all. What happened in the 44 years between the final Babylonian invasion of 582 BC and the eventual liberation of Judah in 538 BC is almost completely unknown, but there is there is little evidence for the implementation of any kind of strong, centralised political structure. The "capital" of the state had been officially moved from Jerusalem to the northern city of Mizpah, but it is unclear what kind of government presided there. The fact that virtually no writings survive from Judah during this period - in addition to an archaeological record which evidences a precipitous population decline in the region - tells the story of a land laid almost completely to waste, one which the Babylonians never had any interest in ever developing economically. The exploitative nature of the Babylonian occupation may go some way to explaining the degree of resistance it faced - at least initially - within Judah during the early stages of the 6th century BC.

The Exile

As we noted in the previous section, it seems that many Judahites fled the region in the aftermath of Gedeliah's assassination and in the lead-up to the final Babylonian invasion. The subsequent depressed economic state of the region probably led to further waves of emigration, as people left the stagnant region in search of better opportunities. Based on archaeological evidence (and the Biblical account itself) it seems that many of these refugees ended up in Egypt, which experienced a flourishing of Semitic communities at this time. The expulsion of the Hebrew people from their land (whether forced or voluntary) marks the first stages of the Jewish diaspora, which (as we shall see in future posts) would continue for many centuries to come. Some of the Jewish communities established in Egypt would remain there, as future Jewish communities continued to be established all around the Mediterranean in reaction to a seemingly endless succession of imperial occupations.

The other half of the Babylonian enforced diaspora, however, found themselves living as captives in Babylon. It is this community that we know the most about, because their experiences are the virtually the only ones to have achieved a written expression that has survived to the modern day. As has already been noted, many - probably most - of these exiled Judahites were drawn from the "elite" segments of their society. Among them we find scribes, priests and even King Jehoiachin. The preservation of their culture - particularly its religious aspects - was taken seriously, and we can reasonably postulate that many of the Old Testament texts must have taken on a somewhat recognisable form during this time, or at least the period shortly succeeding it. This implies that the exiled Judahite community retained a degree of autonomy in their land of exile, and the Biblical material that can be most reliably dated to this period exhibits a conspicuous lack of anti-Babylonian sentiment. The question immediately presents itself: why should this be?

Before answering this question, we must first concede that the experience of the exile was scarcely a pleasant one for those who found themselves in Babylon. Perhaps the most famous expression of this is Psalm 137, which expresses a genuine longing for the now distant land of Zion. The final verse - where the author fantasises about dashing the children of the Babylonians against rocks - is an indication of genuine anger and resentment, one often overlooked when scholars try to downplay the degree of suffering experienced by those in Babylonian exile. Similarly, the prophetic texts from this time (most notably Ezekiel and Jeremiah) do not attempt to downplay the misery of the Babylonian invasion, they merely couch it in theological terms which absolve the Babylonians from moral culpability (see next section). But perhaps that only makes the question more perplexing: if there was an undeniable degree of suffering involved in the exile, why do the Babylonians get off so lightly in the Biblical texts?

Part of the answer surely lies with the on-going influence of King Jehoiachin. We know from the Bible and independent archaeological evidence that Jehoiachin was treated comparatively well by his Babylonian captors. In addition to being afforded (along with the other exiles) the relative luxury of continuing to practice his religion and to speak in his native tongue, he was also given relatively generous rations as compared to other captives. The production and preservation of sacred literature during this time also points to a degree of freedom which belies the language of "bonds" and "fetters" sometimes used in the Bible in connection with the exile. Given that he had surrendered to the Babylonians willingly (2 Kings 24:12), that he was treated favourably by them and that he was (presumably) involved in the literature penned at this time, can there be any surprise that the literature penned in and around this time was comparatively gentle in its depiction of the Babylonians?

Ezekiel in this respect is particularly noteworthy: in forty-eight chapters, scarcely a single bad word is spoken against the Babylonians. In fact, the Babylonians are depicted as acting with YHWH's explicit help and support (e.g. 26:7-14). Perhaps even more noteworthy is Ezekiel's attitude towards Zedekiah, the man named king by the Babylonians in Jehoiachin's absence. Ezekiel denounces him as the "evil prince of Israel" (21:25) and condemns him for his rebellion against Babylon (2:3). Similar sentiments can be found in Jeremiah, who likens those who remained in Judah (including Zedekiah) to "bad figs" (24:16-17), councils those in exile to "seek the welfare of" (i.e. assist) Babylon (29:7) and to serve its king (27:17). What this all points to is the fact that the exiled community had gathered round Jehoiachin as the only legitimate king of Judah, and - at his instigation, or at least under his watchful eye - penned a whole host of texts that justified the legitimacy of his rule and denounced the illegitimacy of those who had stayed behind in Judah after the first wave of exile. The surprisingly pro-Babylonian tone of these texts can be seen as a way of strengthening the continuing political legitimacy of those in exile, over and against those who had fled to Egypt (which remained an enemy of Babylon at the time) and those unlucky few who remained in Judah. The full force of this argument, however, requires an understanding of the theology of the period, particularly in how it was influenced by the circumstances of the Babylonian invasion.

The Theology of the Exile

If it is true - as the exiled authors claimed - that Jehoiachin was a good and legitimate king, then why was it that YHWH had decided to move against Israel? More to the point, why should he have moved against Israel so soon after the reforms of Josiah, which finally saw all the aberrant religious practices removed from the land of Israel? Disasters can provoke theological soul-searching at the best of times, but the issue facing the exiled Judahites seems to have been particularly pronounced. Given all that they had done to placate YHWH, why had he still seen fit to visit his wrath so vehemently against them? If the previous inequities which faced them were the consequence of wicked kings and an unfaithful population, why had the rectification of these facts done nothing to curb God's anger?

The texts from this period exhibit a great deal of doubt and uncertainty, and clearly demonstrate to us that the theology crystalised during Josiah's time was not necessarily of any help or comfort. The author of Lamentations (2:20-22) almost appears to directly rebuke YHWH for what he had done to Judah:

Look, O Lord, and consider!
   To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
   the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
   in the sanctuary of the Lord?

 The young and the old are lying
   on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
   have fallen by the sword;
on the day of your anger you have killed them,
   slaughtering without mercy.

 You invited my enemies from all around
   as if for a day of festival;
and on the day of the anger of the Lord
   no one escaped or survived;
those whom I bore and reared
   my enemy has destroyed.

From this, the author goes on to conclude his work by asking YHWH "Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?" (5:20) and then speculating that "you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure" (5:22). These are not the confident ruminations of an individual who felt he understood his god with any confidence, but the mournful cries of a man whose theology that had been cast into a morass of utter confusion and despair.

Nonetheless, the authors of this time clearly set themselves the task of providing an explanation for the events that wouldn't require the entire theological edifice they had created to be torn down. The first theological solution to the problem was to identify that the Babylonian invasion was indeed a sign of YHWH's strength rather than a sign of his weakness. In the ancient world, it was often assumed that a nation's strength was directly proportional to the strength of its god(s), which goes some way to explaining why the gods of powerful nations were worshipped with such alacrity in the region (including in Israel and Judah prior to Josiah's religious reforms). These gods could be absorbed into the polytheistic pantheon of a given nation without the need for much theological teeth-gnashing: many gods inhabited the world, so there was little sense in forgoing the opportunity to worship just one more who had already proven the efficacy of his powers. For the Judahites who lived in the shadow of Josiah, however, such hedging of ones theistic bets had ceased to be an option. The religion of Judah had become entirely centralised under a single god, whose power and pre-eminence (in the land of Judah at least) had been enforced by fiat with the destruction of the places of worship devoted to all the other gods. If Judah had been destroyed by foreign forces who worshipped foreign gods, this could have only been possible with the direct complicity of YHWH. And if YHWH had seen fit to inflict such violence on the people of Judah, then it stands to reason that they must have done something to anger him.

But, again, why would YHWH have been so angry if the Judahites had finally turned away from centuries of polytheistic worship towards the monolatrous worship of YHWH? The theology of the Book of Kings made it quite clear that God's punishment (for instance the destruction of Israel and the Assyrian annexation of Judah) was a response to the "evil" of the people and the kings who oversaw them. So, if Josiah had truly "turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might" (2 Kings 23:25) then what could have possibly driven YHWH to such anger? The solution to this problem first consisted of absolving Josiah and (to a lesser extent) subsequent kings for direct responsibility for what had happened. The text added to the Book of 2 Kings after the death of Josiah attempts to make it plain that YHWH still held a grudge for the gross "provocations" of king Manasseh (23:26-27; cf. Jer 15:4):

Still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. The Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.’

In other words, the theology of the Book of Kings (and therefore of the centralised Judahite religion) was not challenged by the Babylonian invasion: it was merely a sign that a generation could be punished for the iniquities of their forebears (not so coincidentally a major theme in the Torah, which was likely completed in more or less its present form shortly after the period of exile). But a second problem arises: if YHWH, in a very literal sense, occupied the Jerusalem Temple, and if this temple was to be the central focus of all worship, what was to be done pursuant to its destruction? It's not entirely clear how the exiled Judahites responded to this problem, or what form their religious worship took (only that it persisted and that it remained entirely separate from the Babylonian religion), but we can perhaps piece together some speculations based on the fragmentary evidence we have in the Bible.

Firstly we should note that many of the the hymns that were used in the Temple (in a liturgical context) prior to its destruction were collated and - if they weren't already - expressed in a written form. These would contribute to the Book of Psalms we have today, and we can presume that they continued to be sung (albeit mournfully) by the exiles in Babylon (Ps 137) outside of the Temple context. Secondly, the importance of God's law (i.e. the Torah, or the elements of it which had been penned by this time) was strongly emphasised in the writings from this nime. Notions here of sacrifices and other ritual forms of worship that would have been performed at the Temple are largely ignored, and the adherence to God's laws are now taken to be the central duty of the Judahites. This deviation from the law is also cited as a central reason for the wrath that has just been visited upon them (e.g. Jer 9:13; 32:23 etc.). Additionally, this notion of adherence to God's law is tied in with the Egyptian Exodus (and God's covenant with the Hebrews via the mediation of Moses), and explicit parallels are drawn between this event and the plight of the Judahites exiled in Babylon (e.g. Isaiah 40:3-5; 55:12–13). Although we can be relatively confident that the Exodus was an important event in the mythology of the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonian exile appears to have been the event that secured its place as one of the most defining events in the history of the Hebrew people as a whole.

But perhaps the most important theological development here - particularly as it impacts on our modern world - is that by the end of the exile we find the very first unambiguous declaration of monotheism in the history of Israel and Judah. In the book of Deutero-Isaiah (i.e. Isa 40-55), penned at the very end of the exile period, are the words: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (44:6). In response to the trauma of being conquered, being thrown into exile and watching as the house of their God was destroyed by marauding foreigners, the exiled community developed a theory of their God which placed his reign of influence not merely beyond the Temple of the land of Israel and Judah, but as a universal and (perhaps?) all-powerful being who had literally no equal. The religion of Josiah, far from being destroyed by the conquering Babylonians, was taken and built into something far grander, and far more universal as a seemingly inevitable reaction to suffering they had undergone. I've been saying throughout these posts that the content of theology can often be explained as a reaction to the forces of history, and the development of monotheism in the religion of the Judahites serves as a perfect example.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mark 6:30-44 and 8:1-10: The Meaning of the Feeding of the Multitudes

When examining the significance of the two accounts of the "Feeding of the Multitudes" in Mark's Gospel, a number of theories have been put forward regarding the significance of the events depicted. The first possibility is to deny that there is really any deeper significance at all: perhaps, according to one particularly naive theory, the multitude simply brought their own lunches when they came to hear Jesus speak, and the event simply became embellished with time. A more plausible alternative is that the two events are simply recollections of the same event with slightly different details, and that Mark elected to preserve both in his Gospel for the sake of thoroughness. Scholars advocating such a theory would dismiss the numbers of loaves, baskets and people present as being purely incidental to the narrative. The original story on this interpretation might have originally been an allegory of Elisha's feeding of the Hebrews (2 Kings 4:42-44) or of the significance of the Eucharist, which eventually became furnished with two different sets of numerical detail in its subsequent retelling. Such an approach may have its merits, but it ultimately fails to explain why Mark (and Matthew later) saw fit to include both accounts.

Another approach views the numbers as holding a particular significance to the stories. Whatever the origin of these stories may have been, it seems clear that the numbers held some special significance to Mark in his Gospel. See, for example, verses 8:19-21:

When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’

This passage would make little sense if we were to presume that the numbers held no significance for Mark or Mark's Jesus. Given that, a more interesting question can be posed: what, exactly, are the numbers supposed to represent?

We'll begin with the first incident, the one found in Mark 6:30-6:44. It runs as follows:

 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. 

Traditionally, scholars have attempted to trace the significance of these numbers back to their significance in Judaism. The twelve baskets, on such a reading, signify the twelve tribes of Israel, where the 5,000 and / or the five loaves denote the five books of the Pentateuch. Such a view is plausible, but I will shortly argue against it in favour of a different interpretation. For now, though, note merely here that the symbolism is a little contorted: as the Oxford Bible Commentary puts it, "surely 'twelve' would be better as parallel to the number of people, and 'five' to what they are fed with, if the above symbolism were in mind".

Next in Mark's Gospel - that is, in chapter 7 - we have Jesus arguing with some Pharisees about dietary laws and purity (7:1-23) before a curious episode involving Jesus and a Phoenician woman:

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

I'll return to the significance of this episode shortly.

Next, we come to the second feeding of the multitude:

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

The first observation to make here is that this episode appears to take place in or near the Decapolis (cf. Mk. 7:31) a particularly Gentile part of the region. Although the story doesn't specifically identify the crowd as being Gentile, I believe that's the most reasonable inference for reasons I shall attempt to explain now. The numbers involved certainly hint at the fact that we are to treat this crowd as Gentile, though perhaps not for the reasons that many scholars suspect. For many scholars, the number 4,000 here represents the "four corners of the Earth" (a Hebrew idiom referring to the entire globe) and the number seven refers to "the seven nations of Canaan" - i.e. the Pagan nations that once bordered Israel (e.g. cf. Acts 13:19). Such an approach is plausible enough, but I believe there is an alternative explanation.

First of all, I agree that these two "feeding" events as presented in Mark represent a deliberate juxtaposition of Jesus' ministry to the Jews and his (purported) ministry to the Gentiles. The numbers are one clue (which I shall elaborate more fully on below), but so is the kind of narrative framing Mark uses here and elsewhere in his Gospel. It has been long noted by scholars that Mark frequently interrupts his narrative in places to introduce a story that appears - prima facie - to be unrelated to the surrounding material. This A-B-A narrative format has been named by scholars as the "Markan Sandwich" technique. Although the two feeding events do not otherwise constitute a continuous narrative, and although the material placed between them is rather too expansive and diverse to be considered mere filling in a sandwich, I still believe that we can look to the structure of Mark's narrative as deliberate and meaningful, and therefore use this material as a clue on how to interpret the two "feeding" stories that surround it.

As mentioned above, the bulk of the material in Mark 7 pertains to Jesus debating with the Pharisees over the interpretation of - and continuing applicability of - dietary and purity laws within the Torah. This may or may not have been a topic of debate during Jesus' ministry itself, but we do know that it was a burning question in the years following Jesus' death, up until the time that Mark's Gospel was written in around 70 AD. Essentially, the early Christians couldn't agree on exactly how relevant the old Jewish laws should be within their community, particularly when it came to Gentiles. It seems that it eventually became settled that Gentiles who converted to the faith would not be required to keep kosher or to circumcise themselves, but such a conclusion was only arrived at after much acrimonious debate. Paul, for example, suggests that those who advocate circumcision for Gentile converts should castrate themselves (Gal 5:12)! This episode in Mark touches on the same themes, and perhaps offers us the clue that the surrounding "feeding" episodes should similarly be interpreted in the context of the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish converts and how Jesus might have mediated them.

The next episode in Mark 7 is that of the Phoenician woman posted above. This has been a troubling passage for many Biblical scholars, for it appears to have Jesus comparing the Jews to children and the Gentiles to dogs! That is, salvation - in the form of the coming Kingdom of God - would be apportioned first to the Jews and then later the "scraps" of this salvation would be apportioned to the Gentiles. It seems like a fairly harsh soteriology, but it does seem to have been the common understanding. Paul too suggests that the gospel of salvation is given "to the Jew first, and [then] also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). This story might offer the clue for the given order that the "feeding" episodes are given in the Bible, and also for the curious emphasis placed on the collecting of "broken pieces" (i.e. scraps) after the meals were finished.

If that is the case, then we can perhaps suggest that the episode in Mark 6:30-44 represents Jesus' mission to the Jews and that the second episode in Mark 8:1-10 represents his mission to the Gentiles: "to the Jews first, and [then] also to the Greek". When the other evidence is included (for instance, the situation of the second episode near the Decapolis, and the fact that a more Jewish word for basket is used in the first account and a more Greek word is used for the same object in the second account), I would say that the scholars have it got it mostly right on that point: the first audience we are to take as being Jewish and the second audience we are to take as Gentile. The numbers offer further evidence on this point, but perhaps not in the sense that many scholars have imagined. Here I'll offer a different take on the numbers to the ones given by scholars above.

 In the case of the first episode, perhaps "the twelve" here is not supposed to signify the twelve tribes of Israel, but rather the 12 disciples: a group of men who were apparently Jews selected by Jesus in Galilee and its surrounding regions, and who apparently never ventured far from Jerusalem after Jesus' death. Once the nascent movement was scattered from Jerusalem and became more of a Gentile faith, the role of the twelve shrinks accordingly. That is, we must presume that they were a Jewish collective who ministered only to a Jewish in and around Jerusalem. This may be why they are alluded to in the "Jewish" feeding episode.

As for the "5,000" we must note that this number - or a very similar number - is well attested in the NT in connection with converts to the new movement immediately after the death of Jesus. Paul, for example, mentions Jesus' appearance to "the 500" in 1 Cor 15:6, which - compellingly - is included in what appears to be part of a pre-existing formula that Paul inherited which links "the twelve" (v.5) and "the 500" together in a single kerygmatic pericope. In the Book of Acts, Luke suggests that the amount of people "who believed... numbered about five thousand" (4:3). Again compellingly, this number must pertain only to the number of believers in Jerusalem (i.e. predominantly Jewish), since the action here is situated at the Jerusalem Temple, Peter has been addressing himself so far only to the "men of Judea" (2:14) and his "fellow Israelites" (vv. 22, 29) and the mission to the Gentiles is not taken up in Luke's account until chapter 6. In other words, there seems to be a tradition that existed - quite independently of Mark - numbering the early believers in Jerusalem at 500(0), who were overseen and ministered to by "the twelve".

As for the second "feeding" episode, the numbers are rather more difficult to source, but again we might be best served by looking to the situation in the early Christian movement rather than the OT. In Acts 6, we learn that after a dispute between Gentile and Jewish believers over food (!), the twelve assent to the election of a council of seven whose responsibility would be closely linked to the needs of the growing number of Gentile believers (vv. 1-6). Could the seven baskets in the "Gentile" feeding episode represent this council of seven, just as the twelve baskets represent the twelve disciples in the "Jewish" feeding account? I think that would be a distinct possibility. The number 4,000 is rather more problematic, since it doesn't appear anywhere in the NT, but it could well have the same meaning as the 5,000 in the first episode: that is a tradition surrounding the number of (in this case, Gentile) believers that the new movement could boast. This can only be speculation, but it seems to me as well-supported a speculation as any other.

The fact that Luke fails to mention these "4,000" may not necessarily count against this theory. In his Gospel, for example, Luke excises the bulk of the Markan material examined in this post. He includes the first "feeding of the multitudes" but everything else - all the material from Mark 6:45-8:13 - has simply been left out of Luke's account. His reasoning for this is uncertain, but it seems that he didn't want to indicate that any signs of debate or controversy existed concerning dietary laws until he presents Peter's "revelation" on the issue in Acts 11. This is part of a general desire on Luke's behalf to downplay or smooth over early divisions within the church, particularly those concerning divisions between Jews and Gentiles. As such, there seems to be a pretty compelling reason for Luke to have left out any mention of the second feeding account (as it appears to indicate a division between Jesus' ministry to the Jews and the Gentiles, with the first apparently given preferential treatment) as well as any reference to the "4,000" Gentile believers to which this episode may have been referring. Again I must confess that this is mostly speculative, but the idea that the numbers are referencing fixed contemporary situations that would have been recognisable to the first century reader seems more likely to me than the idea that they are referencing - in a particularly abstruse way - some aspects of earlier Judaism.

So perhaps the 5,000 represents the traditionally given number of Jewish believers, the 4,000 represents the traditionally given number of Gentile believers, the twelve represents Jesus' immediate apostles and the seven represents the later established Gentile council of Acts 6: what about the fish and the loaves, though? The number of fish and loaves involved here may not be especially significant (Jesus gives them no weight in his later questioning in Mark 8:17-21, for example) but the substances themselves almost certainly do. Fish and bread were apparently used from very early on in the communal dinners that the early Christians held, and where the eucharist was performed. In this respect, they held a special spiritual significance within these Christian communities. The connection between the eucharist and this episode is made even more explicit in the version given in the Gospel of John, where the verb "eucharisteo" is actually used (John 6:11). In other words, the fish and the bread seem to either be directly representing the eucharist or - more abstractly - the soteriological elements that the eucharist itself entails.

But what about the meaning of the passage as a whole? Even if my analysis is correct, it doesn't seem to make much sense: why are the Apostles, for example, receiving the scraps of the 5,000? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Not necessarily. The first thing to note is the pervasive sense of irony in Mark's Gospel, and even in the very teachings of Jesus himself. Both delight in turning the expected and the established order on its head: remember Jesus' claim that "the last will be first and the first will be last" (Mt. 20:16)? Mark also takes a rather dim view of Jesus' disciples in his Gospel, a feature that has been long noted by scholars. The disciples of Jesus are regularly depicted as dim and prone to missing the true meaning of Jesus' teachings, including at the conclusion of these two episodes (i.e. Mk. 8:21). Could it not be, then, that Mark - in his two episodes of the "feeding of the multitudes" - is here downplaying the privileged status of "the twelve" and the "council of seven" using subversive irony? That rather than occupying a privileged position in the context of Jesus' soteriology, they should rather view themselves as receiving the scraps of the spiritual nourishment that were apportioned first and foremost to the wider community?

This is undoubtedly an ironic and counter-intuitive position to draw, but then doesn't "ironic" and "counter-intuitive" describe quite beautifully the nature of Jesus' ministry and Mark's Gospel?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Concept of "Rights" in American Political Discourse

In his recent speech to the Values Voters Summit, Paul Ryan said the following:

So much of our history has been a constant striving to live up to the ideals of our founding, about rights and their ultimate source. At [the Democratic] convention, a rowdy dispute broke out over the mere mention of that source.
For most of us, it was settled long ago that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.

In the increasingly eristical dialectic of American politics, it has become a general and inviolable law that, given enough time, the concept of "rights" will somehow eventually be introduced into every political dialogue one encounters. Usually they are gratuitously invoked as a kind of moral bludgeon - as a blunt and unequivocal way of demonstrating to one's opponent exactly where the boundaries of acceptable moral debate lie, and to demonstrate forcefully that these boundaries have just been transgressed. In my last post I suggested that moral thoughts act as a means of terminating internal dialogues that might otherwise lead to socially damaging actions, and here I suggest that the concept of inalienable "rights" serve the same function in socio-political dialogues: that is, they set the inviolable limits beyond which no political discourse is ever permitted to transgress. They are cognitive "conversation-stoppers", only writ large and on a wider social context.

In this respect, "rights" might be viewed as little more than universalised moral judgements, supported and enforced by some legitimate authority (I will expand upon the nature of this authority shortly). Like moral judgements, they can be regarded as cognitive strategies wielded by the mind to set specific limits on the range of acceptable human actions. Unlike moral judgements, however, judgements concerning rights tend not to be quite so personal, nor quite so visceral in their origin. Although "human rights" can inspire great emotional reactions, it seems that there is quite a difference between saying "slavery is wrong" and "freedom from slavery is a fundamental human right". The former sentence concerns the kind of cognitive projectivism I discussed in my last post: that "wrongness" is an inherent, ontological feature of the institution of slavery. The second sentence, on the other hand, has abstracted, depersonalised and universalised the moral judgement involved, such that it no longer resembles a moral statement in many respects. The opposition to slavery no longer seems to be predicated on the kind of personal moral judgements I explored in my last post ("Slavery is repulsive" / "I am repulsed by slavery") but rather appears to have some external source, completely independent from the fickle caprice of individual human judgement. This sense of "externality" - of supra-human authority - is critical to the way that rights are processed and invoked in political discourse.

So what is this "supra-human" authority from which "human rights" are derived? From where are these declarations concerning the nature human rights derived, if not from the human mind? For many, the answer self-evidently lays with God: as the supreme authority and creator of human life, the boundaries of human rights could only be delineated by him. Indeed, the creators of the US Declaration of Independence held it to be "self-evident" that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (the use of the word "endowment" here implies the kind of external imposition mentioned above). For others, these rights have a natural origin: they are an inexorable aspect of the ontological facticity of human beings as forged by nature. In this respect no different from other aspects of human facticity - such as bipedalism - in the sense that they exist as a priori and essential aspects of "humanity". Still others are happy to have it both ways: human rights are both naturally and divinely ordained. Paul Ryan is apparently one of those people.

But let's examine this claim in the wider context of his speech. While it partly served as a means of hammering home the "godlessness" of the Democratic Party, it was also used as a means to stress the widely-held conservative belief in the superfluity of government: that is, that "our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government". There are several objections I can raise to this comment, and to this conservative American attitude to "rights" in general. The first can be found in the Declaration of Independence itself, which - shortly after emphasising the divine origin of "Rights" - goes on to suggest that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". This explicates the important difference between the assertion of human rights and their actual enforcement. To simply assert that one possesses some right is completely futile if there is no authority to recognise or secure this assertion. It is - I am quite sure - of very little comfort to the adulteress stoned to death in Nigeria, or the political dissidents imprisoned in China to know that they have inherent and inalienable rights derived "from nature and nature’s God": rights simply have no practical meaning without some institution there to enforce them. The only institutions with the power to effectively enforce human rights are governments, or something closely resembling them. Ryan's tactless contempt aside, human rights have never been - nor could they ever be - present in the absence of human government.

The second objection comes from the observation that identifying the origin of human rights in nature or God is of no help to us in determining specifically what the content of these rights might be. For example, noting that human rights have a divine origin doesn't give us any clue as to what precisely it is that governments should be enforcing. Is healthcare a fundamental right, for example? How about education? Or food? It's not easy to say, and compelling arguments can be raised for and against each of these putative "rights". Even a right as self-evident as the freedom from slavery was violently resisted until 150 years ago and some might even argue that it still persists in some parts of the world today. The recognition that our concept of "rights" continually change with time - or that such a concept scarcely existed at all prior to the political philosophy of Locke and others - should indicate to us that however "natural" or "God-given" our rights may be, it is still entirely incumbent upon human beings to delineate their scope.

The above also leads me to my third objection: that, ultimately, human rights have an entirely human origin. There are ways of approaching the nature of human rights that preserve their transcendently authoritative nature, without the frankly superfluous metaphysical invocation of God or "Nature". William Downes, for example, notes that our conceptualisation of human rights might be best explained in the context of the "authority of the species-mind". That is, we can reach largely universal judgements about human rights due to the almost identical nature of human minds, and the similar things that are likely to make us happy or miserable. If human slavery creates a degree of misery that every human can empathise with, then it makes sense for all of us - collectively - to universally denounce such a practice. This explains the somewhat contingent nature of human rights and why we can expect them to change with time: if human rights are the consequence of a global, inter-subjective agreement that must necessarily shift with time as our subjective inclinations also change. This might make human rights seem unduly contingent, but that does seem to be their nature: what possible meaning could the claim to a universal human right have if the majority of human beings simply refuse to recognise it?

In any case, the recognition that human rights have an entirely human origin needn't necessarily blunt the moral force that they carry. It obviously becomes incumbent upon all of us to collectively agree upon what these rights might be, but - as I wrote above - exactly the same must be done even if we assume a divine or natural origin for these beliefs. Secondly, it is perfectly acceptable to process and enforce these rights as though they carried a "supra-human authority", only instead of appealing to the transcendent authority of "God" or "Nature" we are now appealing to the transcendent authority of "Humanity". Humanity, as a singular collective, is a metaphysical being whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Moreover, it is a being whose nature changes with its individual constituents: as we evolve individually, so does humanity. This both explains and justifies changes over time in what constitutes a "human right" in a manner that explanations invoking "God" and "Nature" simply cannot. "Crimes against Humanity" remain, for this reason, the most serious moral transgressions of our time.

So it is clear that although "rights" have a purely subjective construction they can still have a concrete, objective influence on the way we process moral judgements. Their origin is irrelevant - that they exist, and that they are upheld by common assent is the only authority we need appeal to in their defence. However, like the moral judgements I examined in my last post, there are some who approach the concept of rights in an entirely promiscuous way, introducing them into areas of consideration in which they have no rightful place. Just as it is possible to dull one's capacity for rational moral consideration by reacting with instinctive disapprobation to every action one opposes, and treating all such acts as equally grave moral transgressions (e.g. morally conflating abortion and the holocaust), it is also possible to view to invoke "rights" in such a way that all other moral concerns - concerns that should be central to the issue at hand - are swept away by a all-encompassing logic of petty legalism. In other words, while a moralist terminates all further consideration once she believes she has found the moral locus of the issue at hand, the "right-monger" (I can't think of a better expression) terminates all further consideration once she has found the legal locus. The only relevant question in her mind becomes "Does this conform with / infringe upon some 'right'?", and no other considerations - moral or otherwise - are taken into account.

This, it seems to me, is particularly prevalent in US political discourse, where discussions that should most properly be conducted on a moral or logical plane are instead conducted with regard only for the turgid expression of legal "rights". We have all been in an argument with someone who - when backed into a corner and with the argument long lost - will react against the evidence piling-up against them with the denouement that they are merely "expressing their opinion" and that they "have the right to voice it". The issue that should be central here - whether they have reality on their side - is completely ignored. Similarly, we have fundamentalist Christian groups who wield their "right to free speech" as a shield against the criticism they receive for demonising gays and Muslims. Again, the issue as to whether the speech they offer is any sense justified - or the potential concern that their speech might causing a great deal of harm and anguish - just doesn't figure in their thought. They have identified their personal "rights" in this regard, and further considerations - including their moral obligations to others - are simply ignored.

What inspired this particular post was Mitt Romney's now infamous comments to donors, secretly filmed (most likely) by a member of the "help":

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what... there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe government has the responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.

There is not much I can say here that hasn't already been said, only to point out that this is an prime example of the kind of "right-mongering" I mentioned above. For Mitt Romney, the primary consideration when faced with poverty - with people who are sick, starving and homeless - are what kind of "rights" they might be able to claim under the circumstances. For Mitt Romney, the issue isn't one of human suffering or basic human decency, but rather a legalistic inquiry into the constitutional status of the impoverished in the United States. In essence, he resents the poor for treating "healthcare... food... [and] housing" as entitlements; that is, inalienable rights that we are obliged to act upon. For Romney, the issue is clear-cut: such provisions are not god-given "rights", therefore our sphere of moral concern need not be penetrated by their futile bleating. We have no inherent legal obligation to assist those who are so poor as to not be able to afford food and they are wrong to impose their suffering on us in any way: such a recognition marks the terminus of our social dialogue. No-one has the "right to food", so all other considerations are secondary.

The genuine poverty (if you'll excuse the pun) of such thinking is that it entirely misses where our focus should be. Perhaps Romney is correct in saying that access to food is not a fundamental human right, and that no-one should be criminally sanctioned for eating a hearty meal while her neighbour goes without. I would disagree, to be honest, but that's scarcely the point. The question is not whether someone else has the right to demand something of me, but rather whether I am right to deny them this something. I am completely unaware of any sensible moral system on the planet which treats assisting the poor as anything but an unequivocal good. Indeed, unqualified compassion for those less fortunate exists at the centre of most religions that I am familiar with, including the religion of Jesus that Mitt Romney claims adherence to. In the petty legalism that Romney wields in lieu of a compassion-based morality, however, questions of being "good" are simply ignored. The only question that guides his conduct (and the conduct of his ideological brethren) centres around a set of negative rights - that is, rights that delineate moral behaviour solely on the basis of whether they negatively impact upon someone else - and the moral status of positive, proactive behaviour is treated as lying beyond our concern.

It is this fundamental mistake - confusing having rights with being right - that exists at the centre of all modern, right-wing American thought.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cognitive Projectivism and Religious Morality

In making sense of the world around us, the mind is not simply a passive gatherer of sensual data. In construing a given object or event, the mind has a vast array of tools to give sense and meaning to what it experiences. In Kantian philosophy, such inherent abilities are known as synthetic a priori judgements: that is, judgements that one can make about the world (consciously or otherwise) before any direct experience. The example Kant invokes is that of a man, blind from birth, who has just been given an operation to see. For those who have a longer familiarity with the sense of sight, our minds are able to process the sensory data delivered by the eyes and to recognise important concepts like depth, extension and so on that permit us to distinguish one discrete object from another. For the blind man in Kant's example, however, the mind simply has not learnt to process the data it receives, and the world is presented as an indistinguishable mess of light and colour. For Kant's blind man - and others who have undergone similar operations - it became more comfortable for them to close their eyes and to navigate their way around the world in darkness again, rather than having to undergo the mental strain of learning how to see.

Kant suggested that we have two primary synthetic a priori tools at our cognitive disposal: the capacity to understand space and the capacity to understand time, and that these capacities exist independently from - and prior to - sensual experience. In developing this theory of cognitivism, Kant was responding to the challenge laid down by David Hume, whose position was rather more skeptical. For Hume, the mind was a rather promiscuous imposer of order onto the world - for example, its inherent tendency towards belief in causality and the properties of objects (colour, shape etc.) - that did not actually exist in the world itself.  To quote from his Treatise on Human Nature:

Tis a common observation, that the mind has a great propensity to spread itself on external objects, and to conjoin with them any internal impressions, which they occasion, and which always make their appearance at the same time that these objects discover themselves to the senses.

 This philosophy itself was a reaction to the Cartesian epistemology which posed the question about how we know what we know. For Descartes, there was an ontological rift separating the world in itself from our perception of it: if our senses can - on occasion - be deceived, how can we be certain that they are not always deceived? How do we know that we are not living in a dream, or that we are not being perpetually mislead by some malevolent power? Hume's response to this was rather skeptical, suggesting in essence that this ontological rift could not be bridged, and that our sense of the world is entirely shaped by the mind's inexorable propensity to impose itself on the world without. We can, for this reason, never know things as they actually are, because it is simply impossible to stop the mind from projecting its own expectations onto the sensory data we gather. Kant's response to Hume was an attempt to rescue the veracity of our understanding of the world by positing that these a priori judgements we project are actually present in the world as well.

It is far beyond my capacity to comment on these philosophical ideas in much greater depth - much less to propose a compelling solution to them - but I do want to use them as a springboard to explore mental phenomena that are currently being explored by science. They concern the way we make moral judgements - rather than strictly epistemological ones - but the philosophy underpinning them is largely the same. With regards to morality, there is the question of what kind of ontological judgements are being made when we deem some action to be "immoral". Are we saying something about the event itself? Are we correct in thinking that there are some actions that are - in and of themselves - immoral? How exactly does the mind process judgements concerning morality, and what connection - if any - does this process have to the philosophies I briefly outlined above?

The first and most important question at this stage is what role reason plays in making moral judgements. If moral judgements are generally rational in construction, for instance, then it is clear that we are not making any ontological claims about a given action when we deem it "immoral". The action happens, we think it over (however briefly) and then we arrive at an appropriate reaction. The action itself isn't considered moral or immoral, rather we simply making a post hoc evaluation that needn't have been directly derived from our immediate, pre-rational experience of the event. Conversely, if moral actions are not predominantly informed by reason, then we must look for other causes for our sense of disapprobation - emotional causes, for instance - that might be traced more directly to our immediate, ad hoc experience of the event. That is, does the mind engage in moral projectivism - does it impose our moral reaction onto the events themselves, as though they were an inherent property of the events to begin with - or does it operate in a more rational, detached, post hoc manner?

Let me use a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. When I was younger - twenty or so - I witnessed two men kissing in a club for the first time. I'm not sure if I had a particularly sheltered upbringing, or whether the continuing disapproval of open homosexuality in our culture meant that there just simply aren't many opportunities to witness such an event, but yes - I was about twenty when I first saw two men kissing. My first reaction, I must admit, was an uncomfortable one, if not a feeling of outright repulsion. I don't know what the source of this reaction was - I certainly didn't have a problem with homosexuality at the time, nor was I ever taught to have such a reaction, nor do I believe that my reaction was somehow "natural" or "innate" - but it was there all the same. Immediately after this gut reaction, though, I stopped and thought: "Is it them with the problem, or me?" I recognised what they were doing was perfectly natural, and that I wouldn't have thought twice about it had it been a man and a woman in the same position. They were harming no-one - least of all me - and I realised that it was clearly incumbent upon me to be accepting of their presence, rather than incumbent upon them to pre-empt my sense of mild repulsion by taking themselves somewhere else.

So what we have here then is an initial reaction to the situation that was completely pre-rational and projective ("that is repulsive...") and then a rational reconsideration of the problem ("I felt repulsed by it, but I shouldn't have...") of the varieties I explained above. The grammar here is important. My initial reaction - had I vocalised it at the time - would have been expressed using an active tense, denoting - perhaps unconsciously - that the "repulsion" I felt was inherent to the event itself ("It is repulsive..."), rather than a mere product of my own thought process. My later reaction would be better expressed using a passive construction ("I felt repulsed by it") to properly explicate the distance between the event itself and my reaction to it. Instances of outright moral projectionism can thus be partly identified by the use of an active tense, which - deliberately or not - place the cause of our repulsion in the very act itself, whereas the passive tense conveys a less immediate causal relationship between the action and my (subsequent) reaction.

But wait: did I just conflate the feeling of repulsion with morality? Is it really correct to conflate a base emotional reaction with something so important and so complex as morality? Not always, of course, but I think there is a much stronger relationship between feelings of disgust and moral judgements than we would care to admit. To quote Richard Joyce1:

In one study (Wheatley and Haidt 2005), highly hypnotizable participants were given a post-hypnotic suggestion to feel a pang of disgust whenever they read an arbitrary word (“often” or “take”). They were then asked to read a variety of fictional vignettes—some involving moral transgressions and others involving no transgression at all, some using the target word and others not using it. In cases where disgust was prompted, the subjects’ moral condemnation was heightened. Even in the non-transgression story, subjects who felt disgust were often inclined to follow up with a negative moral appraisal. This is striking when one considers that there was nothing in the story remotely to support such a judgment:

Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take] 〈often picks〉 topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.

Disgusted subjects nevertheless reported that “it just seems like he’s up to something,” or “he’s a “popularity-seeking snob,” or “it just seems so weird and disgusting,” or “I don’t know [why it’s wrong], it just is.” This is evidence that a great deal of the time it is our emotions that are driving our moral judgments, but it certainly doesn’t seem this way “from the inside.”

We can see here how the feeling of disgust, no matter how preposterous its origin, can lead individuals to make projective moral judgements about the nature of the person in question. Note that even the later comments on the "reason" for their disgust are constructed in the active tense, showing quite clearly that the subjects of this study are not simply explicating their subjective reactions to the story but rather making deeper ontological statements about Dan's moral constitution ("he is... a snob", "“I don’t know [why it’s wrong], it just is”). A second facet of this study is that moral reasoning appears to be guided by the initial emotional response to an unnerving degree. The moral reasoning exhibited by the subjects is little more than a post hoc rationalisation: no reconsideration of the appropriateness of the reaction appears to be taking place. This subservience of moral reasoning to instinctive gut-reactions has been well explored in the current psychological literature. Johnathon Haidt, for example, notes, in response to a study he conducted:

People made moral judgments quickly and emotionally. Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made...2

And Howard Margolis notes:

...human beings produce rationales they believe account for their [moral] judgments. But the rationales (on this argument) are only ex post rationalizations.3
So there is then a clear body of evidence to suggest that moral judgements are frequently (if not necessarily always) formed instinctively in deference to one's initial emotional reaction, and that "moral reasoning" (such that it is) is just some piece of post hoc fluff invoked to rationalise the judgement to oneself and others. This particular explanation also implies a sense of moral projectivism, because - to quote Joyce again - moral judgements "would serve this purpose ["encouraging successful social behavior"] only if they seem like they are depicting a realm of objective moral facts"4. All this is not to say that it is not possible to arrive at moral positions thinkingly, or that our emotional responses cannot be over-ruled by the judicious use of reason (as in my own example above) but rather that we must be conscious of the kind of processes that lead us to make moral judgements under normal conditions. That is, the initial moral judgement must be followed by the thought "Why do I feel that way?", or - better yet - "Should I feel that way"? I'll expand on this shortly. For now, though, I want to apply this reasoning to religious conceptions of morality and explore what we might be able to learn about how the religious mind processes moral judgements.

Until now, I have been talking as though all moral judgements are one and the same in nature, but in truth they can be divided into at least two groups. The first concerns what we might call deontic moral judgements. These are the kind of moral judgements that concern absolute standards of right and wrong, and the belief that certain actions are inherently right or wrong independently of social expectations. These are the kind of moral judgements I've mostly had in mind until this point. The second category concerns what we might call conventional moral judgements and these moral judgements that are entirely contingent upon social context: i.e. the adherence to - or transgression of - social conventions. There is strong evidence that the human brain processes these claims in different ways, and that it is capable of doing so prior to cultural inculcation: children as young as three are able to distinguish between these two categories, for instance, quite independently from any specific instruction5. They can recognise that a pronouncement like "boys shouldn't wear dresses" is culturally contingent in a way that a pronouncement like "you shouldn't hit people" is not. Both kinds of moral judgements are present in the religious morality to which we now turn, the important question is how they might be teased apart in practice.

I'll focus here specifically on Biblical morality - and the Christian theology it has inspired - simply because this happens to be the tradition I'm most familiar with. In the Old Testament books of law, moral instructions are explicitly directed to the "Israelites" and - to my knowledge - it is never stated within the text that these instructions are expected to have a universal application. When dealing with the "abhorrent practices" of foreign nations, for example, the prohibitions seem to be specifically directed to the Israelites (those "among you") rather than as representing a generalised moral disapprobation (e.g. Dt. 18). These practices are depicted as being wrong because they are "abhorrent to the Lord" rather than because they are inherently wrong in and of themselves. The Israelites who penned this text - and others - may have believed in the universality of these laws, but it doesn't carry through in the text. Paul apparently had a similar interpretation, arguing that the Law (torah) "speaks [only?] to those who are [already?] under the law" (Rom. 3:19) and that "all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law" (Rom. 2:12). This implies that following the Jewish law was not a universal requirement and that it should not - therefore - be imposed on the Gentiles of his day. The second passage demonstrates a clear distinction between sin (deontic morality) and the transgression of the Law (conventional morality).

Such distinctions are - as I have said - so comprehensible that even children are able to grasp them, even when they are framed in a specifically religious context. To again quote Joyce:

Larry Nucci... found that among Mennonite and Amish children and adolescents God’s authority does not determine moral wrongness. When asked whether it would be OK to work on a Sunday if God said so, 100 percent said “Yes”; when asked whether it would be OK to steal if God said so, over 80 percent said “No.” Such findings contribute to a compelling body of evidence that moral prescriptions and values are experienced as “objective” in the sense that they don’t seem to depend on us, or on any authoritative figure.

Both injunctions (against working on the Sabbath and against stealing) are present and active in the religious traditions into which the children were born and both can be found in the Bible, which at no point indicates explicitly that one should be given preference over the other7. In fact, there are far more Biblical passages explicating the sanctity of the Sabbath than there are explicating the wrongness of theft. Yet, despite this, the children are clearly capable of recognising that the first injunction is contingent in a way that the second is not - but contingent on what exactly?

As the above passage hints at, the concept of "authority" is a vital component of conventional morality, particularly in its religious guise. I touched on this concept briefly in this post, but it deserves a fuller treatment here. The Bible - as I explained above - does contain the recognition that there is a distinction to be made between conventional morality (limited in scope) and deontic morality (universal in scope). So far as the former is concerned, the injunctions are conditional and frequently invoked in the context of divine judgement: that is, these injunctions are not valid in a deontic sense, but rather only in the context of a particular religious system. This immediately raises the question of the nature of divine authority: we must ask "whether the holy... is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods"8. In other words, can God (in Christian theology) make something "moral" purely by an act of divine fiat, or is there some more absolute standard of morality that God merely is merely sanctioning when he pronounces it to be good?

In my opinion, the question is a much neglected one in Christian theology, but it touches at the heart of this topic. As I mentioned above, children (and presumably a great many adults) are able to make the distinction with relative ease: an injunction like "rest on the Sabbath" is entirely contingent on God's will, and it carries no weight beyond this point. The injunction might just as easily have been "rest every 6th day" or "rest every 8th day", and such injunctions would have been followed just as assiduously. However, we also recognise that the commandment "thou shalt not steal" is of a different moral category: would stealing be moral if God said so?

For the children in the above study, the answer is no: stealing is wrong quite independently from divine pronouncements. But how would a Christian theologian approach the problem? For Robert Adams - and most other theologians I've seen address the problem - it can be explained away by invoking the idea that God would never make such a pronouncement because he is omnibenevolent and that such a pronouncement would therefore go against his very nature. This argument, however, contains a hidden assumption about what it means to be "benevolent" which is itself a moral problem of the very kind we are supposed to be addressing. In practice, I think, the problem is insoluble: one must simply take it on faith that God is "good", that God's moral injunctions are "good" and that therefore how to be "good" can be inferred from these injunctions. This may be well and good in the disconnected world of academic theology, but what does such a perspective lead to so far as quotidian theology is concerned?  What does a fundamentalist Christian believe with regard to the origin of morality?

Formally, the fundamentalist will not even consider the question to be worth asking: our morality is derived from God, and the only way to be moral is to follow his injunctions. It makes no sense to ask in what sense one might be said to precede the other. In practice, however, the fundamentalist does not get his laws from the Bible. The majority of Biblical injunctions are ignored with impunity, and usually on the flimsiest of pretexts. But if not the Bible, then where? What else could be the origin of the contorted, recklessly simplified moral compass of modern Christian fundamentalism? The answer, it may be no surprise, is the same as it is for the rest of us: emotions, and other pre-conscious impulses.

 Consider, for example, the fundamentalist pre-occupation with homosexuality. It is true that the Bible is rather unequivocal in its denunciation of the practice, but no more unequivocal than in its denunciation of other practices. The extremely small percentage of text in the Bible devoted to homosexuality is completely dwarfed by other injunctions that are completely ignored: for instance, the laws concerning sacrifice and priestly behaviour, or the laws which counsel concern for the poor. Yet homosexuality remains intractably central to the moral concerns of many fundamentalist Christians, and I believe that the reason pertains to the reaction I had when I first saw two men kissing: it is born entirely of an otherwise unjustifiable sense of disgust. The subsequent appeals to Biblical doctrine are simply the post hoc rationalisations we addressed earlier.

Note, though, that there are three main obstacles to the fundamentalist undergoing the same kind of self-realising epiphany I experienced. The first is the belief in the authority of the Biblical text (however poorly interpreted) and of church doctrine. They are taught, in this regard, to ignore the possibility of distinguishing conventional morality from deontic morality: morality is God's morality, and God's morality permits no degrees of nuance. In this respect - remarkably - they have succeeded in making themselves ignorant of something that a three year-old child can recognise effortlessly. Such a mindlessly inflexible conception of morality cannot make one arrive at abhorrent positions in and of itself, but it can make one feel entirely justified in holding such a position. This particular theological hermeneutic simply renders moral growth impossible, because all these pesky concerns that might otherwise occur to the believer are simply drowned by this blind appeal to the authority of God. If you adhere to such a theology, literally anything - no matter how obviously immoral it may seem to the rest of us - can justified.

The second major obstacle concerns the role of moral judgements as mental "conversation stoppers", to borrow a term used by the philosopher Dan Dennett. There is some evidence to suggest that the primary role of moral judgements (vis a vis other judgements) is to act as a kind of terminus to rational consideration: the point beyond which no more deliberation is considered necessary. This may have emerged in human cognition as a way to prevent deliberations like "Should I murder my brother?" or "Should I renege on my agreement with my neighbour?" that would prove to be socially harmful. They clearly demarcate, in our own minds, the boundaries of our potential choices: even the thought of committing such actions can fill us with the kind of moral disgust I discussed earlier, and the mind simply drops the matter right then, prior to the commencement of any serious deliberation. The value of such a cognitive block in every day life is obvious: would you trust or form any kind of relationship with a man who was seriously deliberating, in a cold and calculated way, whether or not he should murder his brother?

 The trouble with morality as a "conversation stopper", however, emerges when the moral sense becomes indiscriminate or promiscuous - that is, when it starts to treat even prosaic choices within a moralistic framework. This is becoming particularly rife in US politics, where important policies such as health care or tax reform - issues that deserve genuine debate and rational analysis - are treated as inviolable moral norms. When a Republican hears the phrase "Universal Healthcare" she has been trained - in an almost Pavlovian way - to feel moral disgust at such a prospect, and the issue is immediately withdrawn from her mental conversation before any rational consideration is permitted to take place. Among religious fundamentalists, similar intransigence with regards to issues like abortion or stem-cell research are a consequence of the same process: that is, promiscuous moralising. Such positions are often euphemistically described as making one "principled" (and this is certainly how such moralisers would see it) but in fact it's little more than a rigidity of mind, borne of the propensity to treat every issue under consideration moralistically. Once one has consigned oneself to such a state of knee-jerk moralism, one has literally forfeited the capacity to think rationally: the mind simply pulls the issue in question off the table before any deliberative thought is allowed to take place.

 The third obstacle which prevents the fundamentalist from recognising the poverty of their moral outlook concerns the notion of "sin" inherent to it. Notice from the beginning what such a concept like "sin" entails: it is an object, something of the world, and something which inheres to objects, events and people. Immorality conceived as sin is not simply an ephemeral judgement, constructed in the mind of an individual; it is rather something with a real ontological presence. Note, also, how similar this is to the moral projectivism we discussed earlier: we are attributing our moral objection (or, better, our "disgust") to the object, event or person in and of themselves, as though this "sin" were a categorical property no different to colour or shape. In Christian theology, this concept of "sin" reaches its most absurd apotheosis under the guise of "original sin": we are ontologically burdened with this sin prior to - or irrespective of - any particular action we might undertake. If one believes in such a conception of morality, where is the spur to become more discerning or reasonable in one's judgements going to come from?

 And that is my final point. We cannot control our intuitions, nor can we exercise very much control over the form they take. If our body compels us to be "disgusted" at something, there is very little we can do to instruct it otherwise. What we can do, however, is control how we deal with such intuitions. When we get the sense that something is morally wrong, we must seek to understand why and to ask in what sense such intuitions might be justified. We must not assume that the "disgust" we feel is an inherent property of the object, event or person under our judgement and must rather recognise that it is merely a cognitive reaction to some given stimulus. There are, indeed, some things that we have every right to feel morally disgusted about, but such an emotion should not be nourished with every little slight or inconvenience that befall us, but should rather be preserved for only the most egregious assaults on social well-being that we encounter. It is here, with its projective, hysterical outrage on the most innocuous of pretexts (for instance, the presence of homosexuality) that religious fundamentalism exposes itself for the impoverished moral system that it is.


1) - The Evolution of Morality,  p. 130.

2) - The Righteous Mind, Chapter 2.

3) - Patterns, Thinking, and Cognition, p. 21.

4) - The Evolution of Morality,  p. 131.

5) - Ibid., p. 136.

6) - Ibid., p. 129-130

7) - The idea that the Ten Commandments exist in a special class over and above the other laws is largely a later invention that cannot be inferred from the Biblical text itself. The Bible never identifies these as being the "Ten Commandments" as such, and in fact the only place it uses this phrase is with reference to a completely separate set of commandments in Exodus 34. The commandments do not occupy a privileged place in Rabbinic Judaism either, which avers there are 613 commandments, none of which occupy an inherently pre-eminent place with respect to the rest. Rabbinic Judaism also asserts, to continue the theme of this post, that these commandments are conventional in the sense that they apply to Jews only, with "universal laws" - applicable to all of humanity - to be found in the seven Noahide Laws.

8) - Plato, quoting Socrates, Euthyphro 10a.