Mar 25, 2009

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 2

Here is a brief review of an old, out-of-print book by a scholar of long ago, just one of many, many great, old books I have acquired that do not deserve to be forgotten. I started these reviews because I am sure there are other bibliophiles out there who can enjoy learning from them as much as I have.

I believe that the inexpensive old books I have discovered in used book stores and library sales are, in both the subject matter itself and in how it is presented, superior to what scholars and intellectuals publish today. Old books offer a dirt cheap way to give oneself a great education. I have learned from old books so much important material that, if I read only newer books, I would hardly be aware of, if at all; material that is essential to a good education.

For instance, it was mainly not through my formal education, but through my self-education that I came to see how history is often distorted and misrepresented by people and groups who have certain social/cultural/political agendas, such as Christians responding to the new rise of atheism by claiming that atheism leads to totalitarianism and mass-slaughter as in Soviet Russia. Well, here is one book that thoroughly and comprehensively looks at Russia's path to communism - and it is a history that does not quite corroborate what the Christians like to assert about the matter.

Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky; Collier Books, 1971; 349 pp.

The road to Lenin’s communist Russia of 1917 actually began in 1790 when Alexander Radischev’s book, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, was published. “While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book [A Journey] is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed” including “that the gaudy fa├žade of Catherine’s rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime” (13).

Radischev was an official in the Russian government. As a teenager he was sent to Germany to study and he eagerly absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment‘s thinkers, especially the French philosophes. Radischev, though part of the nobility, was an egalitarian democrat who wanted the serfs emancipated and he saw industrialism as evil. He believed it was for the future generations to make his vision of Russia a reality.

It is not known why the official censor let the book slip by and be published but the consequences of his neglect were tremendous and far-reaching for his country. Radischev was sentenced to Siberia but the ideas of revolution were planted.

The explosive nature of Radischev’s book is evident by seeing the historical setting it was in, which was that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In Russia, Catherine II “opened schools, encouraged book publishing, sponsored a periodical press, though only as long as the satire in which it indulged remained innocuous. A peasant uprising at home and the turn events were taking in France helped put an end to her flirtation with liberalism. The regime which started out as enlightened despotism ended as despotism tout court. But she could not wholly undo, what was, in part, the work of her own hands“ (18-19). After the French king was executed Catherine wanted everything French “exterminated.”

Western liberal ideas were penetrating Russia, especially in its army after the war with Napoleon. Yarmolinsky tells how in 1820 that “the French ambassador wrote that he could not think without horror of what would happen to Europe if forty million Russians, still half savage and brutalized by slavery, conceived a desire for freedom and proceeded to shake off their chains. True, the dangerous notion hadn’t yet entered the heads of the lower orders, but it was already inflaming the well-born” (31).

Secret societies began forming, mostly of military officers. These societies were born of disapproval with sundry political and military matters and were the forerunners of the later communist/anarchist terrorist and revolutionary groups.

A group of insurgent army officers who planned to overthrow the czar in December, 1825 (the “Decembrists“) composed a tract called The Orthodox Catechism. The text is vaguely reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence but is heavily religious and collectivist. In it all Russia’s misfortunes are attributed to its government so the authors call for the formation of a republic because that is the form of government consistent with divine law. They assert that Jesus Christ must reign on earth as he does in Heaven; and the death of the czar is a sign from God for the Russians to free themselves from their slavery. The establishing of a new government is the army’s responsibility.

At the same time, among the Russian intellectuals two schools of thought about Russia’s direction developed, the Westernists and the Slavophiles.

The Westernists thought that Russia would progress similarly as the Western Europeans had. They strongly favored institutional reform as a means of progress. Vissarion Belinsky was the most prominent of them. He called the Orthodox Church a “toady to despotism” that was “foreign to Christ, who was the first to teach mankind the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (72).

The Slavophiles “were romantic doctrinaires who found in German philosophy sanction for their distrust of the intellect, their religiosity, their traditionalism. They believed that Russia possessed a culture distinct from and superior to that of the West” (69). They were populists in claiming that the Russian peasantry embodied the Orthodox faith and its sense of equality and brotherhood. Slavophiles held the lofty conviction that Russia could achieve no less than her own and the world’s salvation.

Alexander Herzen, who was prominent among the revolutionaries’ thinkers, was in the Westernist camp, envisaged a secular Armageddon in Europe that would bring in a new socialist society consisting of a centralized state, order (instead of freedom), and collectivism.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky was also one of the most important thinkers among the revolutionaries. He advocated enlightened self-interest, which meant identifying one’s happiness with the happiness of all. Man is the plaything of circumstances so his society is morally responsible for what he becomes. He also loathed laissez-faire and wanted to see the people living in phalansteries similar to those dreamt of by Fourier. After the publication in 1863 of Chernyshevsky’s fictional story, What’s to be Done?, about the heroically selfless “new men” of the future communism, his influence on radicals and revolutionaries - including on Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the next century - became tremendous.

Of the many terrorist groups in Road to Revolution, one was especially fanatical: “Half a dozen of the more audacious spirits discussed at length a plan for forming a terrorist band. They called it Hell. Each member of this secrecy-shrouded body was to be a dedicated and doomed man. He had to give up his friends, his family, his personal life, his very name” (137).

Dmitry Karakozov was a youth who was considered for the group and was fascinated by the possibility of daring action and self-immolation. “The cause of the common people was his ruling passion” (138). He tried to assassinate the czar but his pistol shot missed. This episode ended in much delicious irony.

That the czar’s life was saved was taken as proof of divine favor falling on him and the Russian people believed Karakozov was an angry serf-owner seeking revenge. Even a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress congratulating the czar for surviving the assassination attempt condemned his would-be assassin as an “enemy of emancipation.” Karakozov’s comrades were arrested and while in jail he vainly wrote to the czar pleading for his life to be spared. “On 3 September, two days after the verdict had been pronounced, Karakozov was hanged by one of the peasant’s for whom he wished to lay down his life” (141).

Like many of the early groups of Russian terrorists and revolutionaries, the Karakozov episode shows how they were often amateurishly inept to the point of hilarity. Often they were more dangerous to themselves than to their intended targets, and their many attempts to “rouse the masses” to revolt simply fell flat.

Yarmolinsky’s history of Russian radicalism ends in the 1890’s with the emergence of the major Marxist political parties.

Of nearly all the Russian revolutionaries, from the intellectuals down to the terrorists, three characteristics of them are salient.

First is how they saw their revolution in religious terms.

A few brief but very interesting examples from the book are representative of the communist revolutionaries' religious mentalities. In the early 1830’s when they were university students, Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogarev were seduced by the ideas of French socialist thinkers Saint-Simon and Fourier (whose socialist ideas were inspired by and meant to replace Christianity). They swore on the Bible “to dedicate their lives to the people and the cause of liberty ‘upon the basis of socialism‘” by forming a secret society (67). There was Vera Figner with her “ideal of the prophets and martyrs of the socialist evangel” (180). Michael Bakunin’s followers held “a dream of freedom and equality on earth which was a substitute for a lost faith in heaven” (184). In the 1870’s were one group of revolutionary propagandists who pored over the New Testament and “dreamed of a new faith that would at once steel the intellectuals with fresh courage and enlist the religious sentiment of the masses on the side of revolution.” They believed “a revolutionary was most effective when he suffered for the cause“(187). Yarmolinsky quotes one terrorist after an assassination: “Let my blood, too, be the seed of Socialism, just as the blood of the early martyrs was the seed of the Christian Church” (257).

Secondly, just like contemporary terrorists they were fanatical nihilists who reveled in death, destruction, and martyrdom. For instance one revolutionary pamphlet stated, “We must devote ourselves wholly to destruction, constant, ceaseless, relentless, until there is nothing left of existing institutions.” And here is another especially evil quote from the terrorists’ literature: “We prize thought only in so far as it can serve the great cause of radical and ubiquitous destruction” (152). Then there is Sergey Nechayev’s infamous, The Catechism of the Revolutionary, which describes the revolutionary as a “doomed man” who has, literally, only one interest: revolution, so he can “destroy this vile order.” Some of this rhetoric, also like statements of terrorists since then, is undoubtedly hyperbolic bravado and propaganda - but it expresses some amount of profoundly held conviction, nonetheless.

Thirdly, they were second-handers, some of them abjectly so. Nechayev was a basket-case of second-handedness.

In order to be seen as a hero by his comrades he faked his imprisonment, faked his escape from his faked imprisonment, and even faked being killed by the police. “His ascetic habits - he lived on bread and milk, and slept on bare boards, at least while staying at the homes of his followers - could not but make an impression. Those he did not fascinate he ruled by fear…He arrogated to himself the right to destroy those who did not see eye to eye with him” (157).

One cell member was disobedient to Nechayev and doubted the existence of a mysterious, secret “Central Committee” Nechayev claimed he attended and would then give them orders from (he was, indeed, its only member). Nechayev and three other cell members murdered him. “For years the cry to kill the people’s enemies had repeatedly been raised by the handful of would-be liberators. The only victim turned out to be one of their own small number who had aroused the leader’s hostility” (159).

Nechayev was eventually arrested and was to be sentenced to Siberia, but his pseudo-heroics only made things worse for himself. During his sentencing he shouted, “Down with the Czar!” and “Long live the free Russian people!” and similar insults to the authorities. “As a result, the Emperor changed the court sentence to solitary incarceration for life in the Fortress of Peter and Paul” (165).

Road to Revolution is a very interesting, informative, and readable book on the Russian revolutionaries before Lenin, from their intellectual theories and religious inspirations to their bloody actions. For anyone wanting to learn about this subject, Yarmolinsky’s book is required reading. More important, considering how often Christians attempt to tie atheism, rationality, and secularism to the totalitarian bloodbath of communism, Yarmolinsky’s book is an effective (although unintended by him) debunking of that assertion. Russian communism and its horrors were, to a very large extent, clearly consequences of irrationalism and secularizing the Christian religion.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 1

Mar 11, 2009

"Jesus, Interrupted", Reviewed

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), by Bart D. Ehrman; Harper One; 2009; 292 pp.

In any legitimate field of human study, be it physics of the material world or psychology of the mind’s world, there is something as a subject of study that can be pointed to, so to say, that is independent of the person studying it. Even if a physicist’s, or psychologist’s, or economist’s, or philosopher’s theory or idea is dead wrong there is at least something in reality we all (at least in principle, if not in actual practice) can experience, have access to, observe for ourselves, be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. If so, we can see how his theory or idea is dead wrong and therefore, correct it. For example, anyone can, in principle, look to economic reality and see how the economics of Karl Marx were dead wrong. The subject matter is there to be seen and understood - or even misunderstood again, but it is there and independent of the mind. It is no profound observation to state that men will always find more to learn about the subject matter of physics, economics, psychology, etc.

There is one subject of a long and tremendous amount of “studying” to which, the above, however, does not apply. That is religion.

Go to the origins of any religion or religious concept and what one will find is the historical and cultural context of the person(s) who originated that particular religious idea. One can certainly see how it satisfied their specific religious, political, or cultural need, question, or concern of that time in that place - but of the actual religious (i.e., supernatural) being, entity, process, etc., one will find utterly and absolutely nothing in reality that the mind can be connected to or be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. Nothing. One can see that it was an arbitrary assertion pulled out of thin air by the originator of some god, messiah, other-worldly realm, revelation, or whatever because it suited some need. That’s it; find an exception to this in religion’s long history. Instead of finding any subject matter that is external to the mind and in principle accessible by others there is in religion a pathetic and shabby substitute: those others who believe and act as if the religious concept is a proven fact. Their “authority” said so, so it is true. That does not place us any closer in reality to the actual subject matter of any religious idea. It only places us that many minds removed from the mind that religious idea originated in. The subject matter of religion is based solely on someone’s say-so, not anything in reality independent of his say-so.

I learned this based on much studying of religion. At first religion may be seen as having a formidable appearance to penetrate that maybe, at bottom, has something to it somehow. Afterall it has existed for so long with so many adherents and defenders. There is so much of religion all around us with so much built upon it including entire civilizations, and yet eventually I found how arbitrarily man-made it is. Religion, however dominant and far-reaching it may be, ultimately, rests on nothing in reality apart from beliefs in the minds of men. That is the nature of the subject matter of religious beliefs - they are beliefs that are not legitimately derived from reality but are applied to reality.

This taught me a principle that I have come to consider a universal “law,” which is that one will find, the more and more one studies religion, the less and less there is to religion. Perhaps we should call this “The First Law of Religion.”

The eminent biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, has an interesting and revealing new book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) - and it substantially backs up the First Law of Religion.

Jesus, Interrupted is about Jesus, the New Testament, and the development of Christianity. What is in the book, Ehrman states, is actually nothing new - to scholars, or those who have attended a seminary, that is. There is, though, plenty in the book that would be new to the man “on the street and in the pew,” like that the Bible actually contains forgeries and most of the New Testament authors are really unknown, and that Jesus saw himself as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, not as God’s offspring, and plenty more like that - facts that challenge the version of Christianity most people accept. Ehrman’s thesis is that the Bible is a very human book and the Christianity we have inherited is very human-made. Prof. Ehrman, who was an evangelical Christian who turned agnostic, does not, however, intend to attack the Christian faith as such. He does intend to “let the cat out of the bag” as he puts it, about what scholars, theologians, and pastors have known for two or three centuries about the Bible and early Christian history but have kept from the public for whatever reasons. What Ehrman does is show the layman how to look at the Bible from the “historic-critical” approach apart from the usual “devotional” approach and explain what scholars using the historic-critical approach have learned about the Bible.

The way to find the contradictions, discrepancies, and other problems in the Bible is to use “horizontal” reading, which Ehrman distinguishes from “vertical reading.” Vertical reading means to start reading the gospels with Matthew, reading it from beginning to end, then on to the next gospel from beginning to end, and so on. Read that way they pretty much seem alike. “In a horizontal reading you read a story in one of the gospels, and then read the same story as told by another gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail. Reading the Gospels horizontally reveals all sorts of differences and discrepancies” (21). Horizontal reading clearly shows the discrepancies between the four gospels on the matters of Jesus’ birth, his ministry, what he taught, his death, etc. that a vertical reading might overlook.

In the first third of the book Ehrman goes over the inconsistencies on the more important matters in the four gospels and Paul's writings. From this the overall lesson is that “each author of the bible needs to be allowed to have his own say, since in many instances what one author has to say on a subject is not what another says. Sometimes the differences are a matter of stress and emphasis; sometimes they are discrepancies in different narratives or between different writers’ thoughts; and sometimes these discrepancies are quite large, affecting not only the small details of the text but the very big issues that these authors were addressing” (99).The contradictions are much to an atheist’s delight and even amusement, so I shall not divulge the details here like a “spoiler.” The point is, the material is all pretty shocking and is great intellectual ammo to use against Christians - right out of their own book!

Ehrman draws three conclusions from the horizontal reading of the gospels and Paul’s letters. The first is the belief in biblical inerrancy is simply not true. Secondly, the reader should “let each author speak for himself and not pretend that he is saying the same thing as another”(60). Thirdly, that there are discrepancies means that we “can’t read these books as disinterested historical accounts. None of them is that”(60).

Ehrman moves on to biblical authorship, a subject that will be very surprising to many. “Though it is evidently not the sort of thing pastors normally tell their congregations, for over a century there has been a broad consensus among scholars that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people whose names are attached to them. So if that is the case, who did write them?” (102)

Most New Testament books fall into three groups. Misattributed writings is the first group, which includes the four gospels. They were actually written anonymously. Then there are homonymous writings. These have the same name on them as someone famous, but are not written by that famous person. The book of James was written by someone named James, but not James, the brother of Jesus, as the church fathers assumed. Lastly are the pseudepigraphic writings which are forgeries written under someone else’s name, like many of the letters attributed to Paul. They were written by later followers using his name and thus giving his authority to their writings.

After spending a fascinating chapter on who did and did not write the New Testament texts, Ehrman moves on to the center of it all, Jesus. This is even more fascinating and revealing. A careful analysis of what the biblical authors say about Jesus placed in the context of history at that time brings conclusions as convincing as they are startling; and that are quite different from how Christians now view Jesus. Again, this is so good that I do not want to spoil this chapter for any readers so I will only pull this quote from the chapter: “For over a century now… the majority of scholars in Europe and North America have understood Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet”(156). Based on the evidence they do not believe that Jesus saw himself as the son of God, but merely another prophet. Like Ehrman said, he’s letting the cat out of the bag - and it is one big cat.

The next cat to leap out of the bag is how the New Testament canon was formed. "The problem in the development in the canon of scripture was that each and every one of the competitive groups of Christians - each of them insisting they were right, each trying to win converts - had sacred books that authorized their points of view. And most of these books claimed to be written by apostles. Who was right? The canon that emerged from these debates represented the books favored by the group that ended up winning. It did not happen overnight. In fact, it took centuries”(191).

Ehrman surveys some of the major Christian sects and how they differed and argued with each other, and as the centuries went by the Christianity that finally won out was far removed from the original Christian beliefs. “The group that won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man‘… as the fourth-century Nicene Creed maintained”(215).

Ehrman concludes the book by considering the question of how biblical scholarship may impact a believer’s faith. It is an interesting chapter and Ehrman explains the role it played in his loss of faith, which was important but not decisive. He does not see his book with its historic-critical approach as an attack on Christianity - nor he says, do many Christians. Instead, what biblical scholars have learned has given some Christians a better historical understanding of their religion. As impressed as I am with Ehrman’s knowledge and analysis of early Christianity I find that I cannot agree much with him philosophically. That Christians, be they biblical scholars (most are Christian) or their students, can retain their faith anyhow in light of what biblical criticism has revealed only demonstrates what faith really means: holding a belief despite lack of evidence and contrary to reason.
Ehrman's book and others like it are, by their nature, regardless of their intent, overwhelming attacks on Christianity simply by virtue of reporting and explaining the facts and realities that Christian beliefs fly in the face of. If I were a Christian, learning what is in books like Jesus, Interrupted would end my faith. For me they would be painfully clear in explaining how man-made religion is.

Examining the Bible and early Christianity like any other area of study as done in Jesus, Interrupted shows us, as Ehrman intends to show us, they are very man-made. We have this holy book that has been of foremost importance in Western civilization, yet the original texts that comprise it are lost, the surviving texts are copies that are from centuries later and are all different; also there is the problem of forgeries and later additions and omissions to the biblical texts; much of the history in it is inaccurate; and beliefs about God, Jesus, heaven and hell, etc., are known to be very man-made. Ehrman does a great job of explaining all that and more. Jesus, Interrupted offers one a thorough look into the origins and history of the most significant Christian beliefs - and the bottom line is there is not much there, just the say-so of the religion’s originators. "The Bible is not a unity, it is a massive plurality. God did not write the Bible, people did“(279).

Mar 8, 2009

Pawlenty: Gov't Is Not Protected from People of Faith

In this brief story, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is quoted at the Conservative Political Action Conference:
It all starts with acknowledging that God is our Creator and it is from God that we receive our values and principles.”Pawlenty noted that the freedom of religion protections in the U.S. Constitution were “designed to protect people of faith from government not government from people of faith.”

This is troubling because, obviously, if people of faith govern according to God-given values and principles then the people being governed are subjected to and not protected from a government of faith. If government is not protected from people of faith, government is not protected from faith.

Re-writing Pawlenty’s statement as separate sentences helps uncover what he may really mean:
(1) Religious protections in the Constitution were designed to protect people of faith from government.
(2) Religious protections in the Constitution were not designed to protect government from people of faith.

Is Pawlenty using “protection” in the same way? We cannot tell because he does not specify the “what“ that needs and does not need the protecting from. Pawlenty, however, seems to imply in (1) that people of faith are protected from being persecuted by government for their faith. We will assume that is his meaning.

What about (2) though? He is religious so why would he say that government does not have “protection from” people like him? Is it that they are benign to government and therefore the idea of “protection” from people of faith is not a real concern? Or, does he mean that those who want the protection of church-state separation have no constitutional ground to stand on? That is more likely the case.

Considering that in his quoted statement Pawlenty emphasizes (2), that government is not protected from people of faith, only implies we should have government according to faith.

Pawlenty’s statement is a sophistry that is intended to imply that there is no church-state separation. He will not say so explicitly for obvious reasons.

It is both immoral and contrary to individual liberty for religious believers to use government - which is essentially coercion institutionalized - to make laws and policies that intervene in the lives of the governed which are based on “values and principles” that are “God-given,” meaning: non-demonstrable, non-provable, non-valid; in short, imaginary. In a free country under a constitution that is built on principles of political science which are derived from experience in reality, those with imaginary beliefs should keep them to themselves where politics is concerned.

Lastly, a question for Pawlenty is, do people without faith deserve protection from a government of people of faith?

I think I can predict the answer.