Eastern Philosophy: The Basics

Eastern Philosophy: The BasicsEastern Philosophy: The Basics by Victoria S. Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harrison is a good writer. Despite this being an introduction to the basics, I feel as if my knowledge base and understanding have greatly expanded.

At the close she declares "A so-called 'global philosophy' that attempted to merge the various philosophies of the world into a common tradition seems unlikely to succeed." Instead she advocates focusing on the idea of a "global philosopher" which she then defines as "one who is conversant with a number of the world's philosophical traditions and is equipped to participate in a philosophical discussion within and between them."

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Tell It on the Mountain

Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11 by Barbara Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Browsing the local progressive Christian bookstore I saw this volume and was intrigued what an entire book on Jephthah's daughter would be like. Plus, I was about to teach that story in an adult Bible study this fall, so I grabbed the book.

This is really a textbook (though you could do an adult bible study with it) exploring various ways of reading and interpreting the Bible, using this story as the entry point. In particular Miller brings into conversation Medieval Jewish Midrash and contemporary feminist scholars, with the book introducing both methods and the variety of voices even within those traditions.

The book also introduces methods one can (and should according to the text) use when interpreting biblical narratives.

I was hoping for some more in-depth analysis, but some of my other commentaries and books asked more provocative questions of the text. That said, I still find it engaging and useful. In particular I would not have encountered the midrash in most of my sources. I'm most thankful for having here encountered a first century poem imagining the sung lament of Jephthah's daughter.

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Desire

Desire

Song of Solomon 7:10-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

7 October 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Salome Dancing Before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse.

 

 

    As I prepared the sermon for this week, I kept listening to the song "Wild" by the South African singer Troye Sivan. The refrain of the pop song is

 

Never knew loving could hurt this good, oh

And it drives me wild

'Cause when you look like that

I've never ever wanted to be so bad, oh

It drives me wild

You're driving me wild, wild, wild

 

    Sivan's songs have been described as "an infectious celebration of sexual desire." A fitting complement to this painting of Salome Dancing before King Herod by Georges Rochegrosse. The Joslyn Art Museum describes Georges Rochegrosse's painting as such: "Frequently, literary or historical sources serve as pretexts for sensational and titillating images." And in this particular painting "inspired by the biblical account of the death of St. John the Baptist, minute details of setting and human physiognomy encourage the viewer to share with the painted audience the lithe dancer's provocative performance." This is a painting meant to both exhibit and evoke our desire. To drive us wild.

    Now, we modern people are trained to take a detached, sophisticated approach to art. Nude bodies in art are okay, because they're art. As if great art couldn't inspire our desire. I'm certain that Michelangelo didn't expect a detached reaction to his statue of David.

    Art, even great fine art, does inspire our desires. But desires are slippery things; they can drive us wild. Therefore, desires make us anxious. Plato, for example, thought pleasure was wrong, that it polluted the soul, and that the enlightened person must rise about desire and pleasure into the realm of abstract reason. Some of those ideas clearly infected Christian thinking.

    But what if desire is vital to our spiritual life? What if God wants to drive us wild? Contemporary theologian Belden Lane, for instance, praises a "God of wild beauty" and Natalie Carnes declares that "God is desire itself."

    Could our desires inspire us to transformation? By driving us wild, can they also make us good?

 

    Salome Dancing before King Herod hangs in the European galleries on the north side of the Joslyn's main building. In that room are a handful of paintings from the Orientialist style.

    These Orientalist paintings are fascinating. They come from the middle and late 19th century when traditional forms of painting were at their most developed. These painting represent classical painting just before modernism burst upon the scene. They exhibit great detail and skilled execution.

    Orientalism emerged as part of a Western European fascination with the exotic. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, his soldiers returned with such new and exotic things, they they inspired imaginations. And so artists began to paint images of "the Orient." But for them "the Orient" meant pretty much everything east of Western Europe, including Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and the Middle East, regions that are actually part of Western civilization.

    Despite the artistic skill of these paintings, they are problematic, for they perpetuated racist stereotypes. Though they were painted in a realistic style, the images were fantasies, exoticizing their subjects. Here, for instance, a biblical subject matter excuses the prurient details of the painting.

    Edward Said, the great cultural critic, published his masterpiece Orientalism in 1978 criticizing how 19th century Europeans had fetishized the East in ways that presented lasting implications for global politics. And one point he made was how these artists had created sexual fantasies--"What they looked for often," he wrote, "was a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt-ridden."

    The cultural and political issues surrounding this paint inform us that one of the dangers with desire is that the object of our desire can become objectified and commodified. Isn't that what the story of Herod is about? His own prurient lusting after Salome and the dangers it leads to? For objectification can lead to exploitation and attempts to possess and control the objects of our desire. And the attempt to possess and control that can become violent.

    Our society is currently engaged in a deeply profound conversation about just these matters of sexual ethics. And in particular how toxic masculinity breeds a sense of entitlement and privilege that results in violence, abuse, and trauma for women.

 

 

    Can desire, then, drive us wild and make us good?

What glory that our religious tradition contains the love poem I read at the start of this sermon! In contrast to commodified, fetishized desire, the Song of Solomon is a rich resource for celebrating love that is good. Dianne Bergant points out in her commentary that what this poem celebrates is "mutual love, not an unequal relationship." The Bible gives us an image of mutual love and mutual desire that drive us wild.

    That we humans are tempted by objectified and commodified desire, is it possible that we desire too weakly?

Natalie Carnes, a professor at Baylor, wrote precisely that in her new book Image and Presence—"the problem with our own desire is that it is too weak, too easily satiated, too quick to terminate. We are satisfied with golden calves."

    Instead we need a desire that grows and enriches us. A desire that is never-ending and never satisfied. And what kind of love does that describe? God's love for all of us. So, the desire that truly drives us wild and makes us good is the desire for God and God's desire for us.

To love and desire as God does, change us, by teaching us to see the world in new ways. Natalie Carnes declares, "To see the world [as God does]. . . requires resisting the will to master the world. It demands, instead, opening the self up to the transformations love can accomplish."

    I've now been married for over nine years, and marriage has worked its changes upon me. Marriage has revealed to me my rough edges. I've learned things about myself I might not have learned otherwise. Or even really wanted to learn. So to be a better husband, I've had to work on myself.

    And being a father these last three and half years has revealed depths of love I wasn't even aware of. Joys and delights I didn't know.

    Loving my husband and my child have changed me. This is what good desire, true enjoyment can accomplish.

    And so with God's love for us. God's love and desire for us can open us up and change us. It can drive us wild and make us good.

 

    Today is World Communion Sunday. Together we will eat the bread and drink the grape juice. These elements nourish us. But the little bread and the little juice aren't enough to fill us up if we are actually hungry and thirsty. Despite how tasty the gluten free matzo is. In fact, that little taste might serve as a reminder that you are hungry.

Instead, the communion nourishes our spirits. In the meal we remember Christ, which means we also remember "a life beyond us, which precedes us, [and] prepares us to enter into a . . . fullness that shatters boundaries." As Natalie Carnes writes.

    Through Jesus we share in God's glory, and "the divine presence come to us . . . transforming us into an image with still greater likeness to God."

    God never desires us as objects or commodities. Listen to this beautiful description from Natalie Carnes:

 

For God looks upon us as clothed in Christ—as if we are God, inexhaustible and infinitely unfolding. God loves us as if we are Christ, and such love makes us little christs. Thirsty for us, Christ looks upon us as if we are Christ's very body, and so the Father looks upon us as if we are Christ, and desires us as if we are Christ. So looked upon and desired, we can become christs.

 

    God loves us with an infinite, unconditional love, and invites to enjoy the same kind of love.

Dearly beloved, let us be made wild with a desire that makes us good.


The Image

The Image

Colossians 1:15-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

30 September 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by Illustration for Fisk Cord Tires by N. C. Wyeth.

 

 

    One of the more interesting paintings at the Joslyn Art Museum is this illustration by N. C. Wyeth which hangs in the galleries of American and Western Art. A group of Native Americans on horses in shadow as an early automobile, in sunlight and vibrant color speeds past kicking up dust. The title of the piece in the museum is "Illustration for Fisk Cord Tires." So, this is not simply a painting, it is an illustration used as an advertisement for a tire company.

    I have always marveled over this image and its many layers of meaning. For one, it is well executed. There seem to be two different styles. The Natives in a more realistic style traditional in Western art. Yet the car and the mountains behind it are impressionistic. One side is light and bright, the other side is dark and detailed.

    Then there is how we interpret the image. The picture conveys some of the excitement and adventure of the Old West while also displaying that modernity and its technology are leaving the past in the dust. There is humor in the image, and the published descriptions of it point this out. But there is also a darkside to it—the erasure of Native American culture.

    The Joslyn sent us a copy of the original Fisk Cord Tires ad that included the painting. The text of the ad reads,

 

For the long trip the right tire selection is not an incidental matter.

 

It is essential that the car be as amply cushioned as possible against road shocks, in order to save the occupants from fatigue, to safeguard the delicate mechanism of the chassis, to minimize gasoline consumption and to avoid delay.

 

For touring or daily traveling the Fisk Cord offers all that can be built into a tire of comfort, convenience, mileage, economy and safety. Its substantial, clean-cut beauty is the final word in tire attractiveness, in keeping with the most finished appointments of any automobile.

 

So, contrasted from the dust, dirt, discomfort, and danger of the trails of the Old West, the occupants of the car can ride in comfort, safety, and convenience.

    But what I found most interesting in the original advertisement was the title of the painting, "Fisk Cord Tires Civilize Savage Trails." Rather clear why that is not the title the painting goes by these days.

 

    

    Here we have a rich, complex image with layers of meaning. We live in an image-rich culture. In fact, you might even say we live in a culture where we are daily assaulted by an overwhelming number of images, many of them advertising images.

 

    Bible scholars Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat describe this culture as follows:

It isn't difficult to see how the powerful myths of our own culture are evident in the images that surround us in daily life. Corporate logos and corporate advertising not only shape the public space in our culture but also permeate our private lives. The grocery store, the mall, billboards, buses, television, computers, even our clothing, towels and toothbrushes: all may be marked by corporate logos. . . . These images all tell a story of consumer affluence, Western superiority and the ineluctable march of economic progress.

 

    Now, Christianity has had a long, rich, and complicated history with images. There have been iconophiles who believe that we can experience God in images. This is particularly the case in Eastern Orthodoxy where the veneration of icons is an important part of spiritual practice.

    On the other hand, there have been iconoclasts who believe such veneration is a form of idolatry. The milder forms have simply rejected most images. Our own version of Protestantism was in this tradition. Look about our sanctuary, there are very few images. Even our stained glass windows are non-representational.

    Stronger forms of iconoclasm reject any religious images. For example, many forms of Islam only allow images of words or vegetation and reject that there can be any images of people or God.

    Iconoclasm at its worst believed any images becomes an idol and has participated in the destruction of images. During the Protestant Reformation, particularly in Great Britain, churches were ransacked and religious art was destroyed by the people.

    The power of religious images has been important in recent years. There have been global crises sparked by publications of images of the Prophet Muhammed. And terrorist incidents in response.

    The role of images is a significant religious issue. In fact, what we believe about images and their role in religious practice continues to divide the various major Christian groups and the myriad global faith communities.

    In 2010, right before Michael and I moved from Oklahoma City to here, the local Vedic Priestess, who had gone to college with Michael and knew me from our interfaith work, invited the two of us over to the Vedic temple for a blessing upon our departure. She showed us the statues of the Hindu deities and made offerings to them upon our behalf. It was a lovely ritual, and I felt blessed. While also aware of my Protestant nervousness. A reminder of abiding worries about the role of images.

 

    The Image appears in the Bible as a significant theological idea in two places. First is at the creation of the world as narrated in the Book of Genesis. Humans are created in the image of God. In some way—through our rationality, our creativity, our compassion—we are like God.

    The other key biblical idea is here in the Letter to the Colossians where Jesus, as the Christ, is proclaimed to be the fullness of the image of God. Jesus is the one who most completely embodied God in human form. So if we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus.

    In writing Colossians St. Paul is offering us an "alternative imagination." Much like us the ancient readers of this letter would have been surrounded by images. Images of empire, which were intended to teach the people that peace and prosperity were provided by the Roman emperors. But this poem subverts that in a way that Walsh and Keesmaat conclude was "nothing less than treasonous." The goal of this poem was to provide "alternative images for a subversive imagination." We are invited to imagine the world with Christ as sovereign and that is a different and better world.

    Christian theology, then, presents Christ as "the image." Theologian Natalie Carnes writes that the power of Christ as image is that this image is inexhaustible. Christ then is the opposite of what idols and advertising images do. Idols and advertising images arrest our desires by trying to satisfy them. "They divert [desire], siphoning it off from its path toward the divine. Such images promise a satiation they cannot deliver," she writes.

And in so doing, they actually fail to transform us. Instead, they malform us. They "[undo] us into greediness and unhappiness."

N. C. Wyeth seems to have been aware of this. He became rich making advertising illustrations but worried that these weren't real paintings—that they lacked depth.

I don't feel that way about this particular painting, which I marvel at every time I visit the Joslyn. This painting contains multitudes of meanings. Plus, it inspires us into a reflection on the very meaning and power of images for us as people of faith and followers of Jesus.

We need to desire an image that brings us into fullness. And that is Jesus, the Christ, who points us to who we actually are, embodiments of the image of God.

 

So let me close with a contemporary poem that expands upon this poem of the Cosmic Christ from the Letter to the Colossians. It is written by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. [Read page 85 and following]


A Good Life

A Good Life

James 3:13-18

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

23 September 2018

Note: Part of our Inspire series in collaboration with the Joslyn Art Museum.
This sermon inspired by The Weeders by Jules Breton.

    

    This is one of my favourite paintings at the Joslyn Art Museum—The Weeders by Jules Breton. The museum information on the painting describes it this way:

Scattered across the plain and silhouetted against the sun setting on the horizon, several women on their knees pull weeds from the soil. A single standing figure pauses from her task to look out upon the serene beauty of the evening. By capturing the delicate mauves and roses of the twilight sky and the simplicity of these stooped figures hugging the earth, Breton transforms the activity of common field labor into a scene of poetic reverie.

    As I said, this is one of my favourite paintings in our local art museum, and you will learn a few more of my favourites during this autumn's worship series we are calling "Inspire." What inspires you? Particularly, what inspires you to be good?

    During this series we will explore how the enjoyment of art can be a spiritual exercise drawing us closer to God and other theological themes the art might suggest.

    I've long wanted to do a series like this. Back when I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Oklahoma, I visited Paris and stayed with my friend Scott Stearman who is an American Baptist pastor who was then serving an American congregation in Paris. Rough gig. Now he is the American Baptist representative to the United Nations.

    In one of our many delightful conversations that week staying with Scott and his wife Cecilia, Scott told me that one of his favourite things to do in a sermon was to reference an artwork at the Louvre. His congregants were regularly in the museum, as visiting family and friends always wanted to go there. Or they would visit the museum on a Sunday afternoon after he mentioned a painting.

    I thought this sounded marvelous, and I squirreled the idea away. Somehow in my decades of preaching I've never done it though.

    Shortly after Michael and I moved here we met Jack Becker, the current director of the Joslyn and his husband Lester. Jack and Lester moved here around the same time we did. And though we don't hang out often, we do get together now and then. Jack and I had many times discussed this idea of a collaboration between art museum and church on a sermon series.

    So, this year, I finally decided to do it. And the next six weeks you'll see the fruit of that idea.

    Jules Breton grew up in an agriculturally rich region of Northern France. His "early close ties to the land and the peasantry were to be the principal inspiration for his devotion to rural customs throughout his career," as one commentator described.

    The most famous of his works is The Gleaners, which is similar to this one, and represents peasant women gleaning the grain left over from the harvest, an activity with deep biblical allusions and rooted in an ancient concept of justice—that the farmer should leave some of the harvest for the poor and needy.

    His painting The Song of the Lark provided the title for Willa Cather's novel and is often the cover of printed editions.

    And then there is this great work, painted in 1861, which we are lucky to have here in Omaha. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York owns a smaller copy.

    Breton's images resonant with the agricultural life that is the foundation of Nebraska society and culture.

    Breton idealized and romanticized his subjects and their rural, agricultural life, drawing upon classical traditions of painting. The Italian Renaissance artist Raphael was one of his influences. But his paintings were also inspired by a political and social ideal and were intended to comment upon issues of his day. He supported the liberal cause in the Revolution of 1848, creating paintings that showed the hunger and the misery of the peasant class.

    He became one of the most widely known and acclaimed artists of his time.

    Jules Breton wrote,

I have always had a passion for the Beautiful. I have always believed that the aim of art was to realize the expression of the Beautiful. I believe in the Beautiful—I feel it, I see it! If the man in me is often a pessimist, the artist, on the contrary, is pre-eminently an optimist.

    Of course the Good, the Beautiful, and the True have been linked together since the philosophy of Plato. And in this work of Breton's we get not only the beautiful image of a beautiful scene, but a depiction of a good life. So, can art inspire us to goodness?

    Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher thought so. In one of her great essays, "The Sovereignty of Good over other Concepts," she wrote a line that has deeply influenced my own thinking, "The enjoyment of art is a training in the love of virtue."

    How can enjoying art make us a better person?

    Anil Gomes, analyzing Murdoch's thesis explains it this way, "Art, like prayer, draws us away from the self towards an appreciation of that which is good. In this way, great art makes one a better person."

    Murdoch believed art was "a place in which the nature of morality could be seen." With emphasis upon that last word. We can actually see, perceive goodness in great art.

    She believes that when we truly enjoy a piece of art, we surrender ourselves to its authority. We see things we would not have otherwise seen. We even learn to see in new ways and from new perspectives. We acknowledge something outside of ourselves that draws us outside of our selfish instincts. Enjoyment of art is the opposite of being selfish.

    And so the person who enjoys art is inspired to humility.

    Today's epistle lesson is about sowing seeds of peace and harvesting righteousness by living a good life, one lived in gentleness and wisdom and without bitterness, envy, selfishness, and dishonesty. The kind of life that God desires for all of God's beloved children.

    This description so closely fits Iris Murdoch's depiction of the humble person who she says is "the kind of [person] who is most likely of all to become good."

    And a painting such as this one seems intentionally designed for precisely this purpose—to evoke in our minds a classic and romantic image of a good, humble life so that we might live more justly and beautifully.

    Art can do that. It can calm our anxieties and inspire our humility by picturing for us the good life.

And, so, enjoying art can be a spiritual practice, like prayer. Join with us this autumn as we engage together in this spiritual practice. How will we be inspired?


Fragile Dignity

The ethic of respecting human dignity is an essential part of the modern idea.  This author argues for why the concept is fragile and current under assault:

Incidents like the ones in Austria, Northern Ireland and Chicago contradict the contemporary Western dogma to treat every individual in a way that acknowledges his or her worth as a human being, regardless of their port of departure. And yet, this dogma is delicate. Not just because human dignity seems presently jeopardised by some kind of ‘Trump effect’, or even by some broader reawakening of authoritarian sympathies across the Western world. No: the very concept of human dignity is tenuous.


The Paradox of Public Service

I believe Judge Kavanaugh faces a paradox.  

If he is the noble and upstanding person that he and his supporters claim him to be, then even if innocent, he would withdraw because public service means at times making a sacrifice for the good of the Republic.  The people deserve to have trust and confidence in those who serve upon the highest court.  The nation needs people who unite us across our divisions.  

At minimum he should demand a thorough investigation and a slowing down of the process for this to occur.

Because these have not been his reactions, I am left to conclude that he puts his personal ambition ahead of the good of the Republic.  Therefore I find it difficult to believe he is the noble and and upstanding person he and his supporters claim.  He loses credibility.

There once was a time when such republican virtues as self-sacrifice instead of personal ambition were common among those who served our public.  


Flights

FlightsFlights by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an odd yet fascinating piece of fiction. It reminded me the most of Borges--an odd amalgam of short pieces with themes emerging the longer you read and a few genuine short stories included. And the tone of the pieces is different, some historical, some absurd, some suspenseful, some morbid, etc. Overall and reflection on our bodies and their movement (or lack thereof) through time and space.

I had read of Tokarczuk in a few places as the hot Polish novelist, then the book won the Man Booker International Prize. When she appeared on the longlist for the New Academy literature prize, I pre-ordered the first American edition of the book. She is clearly a great talent, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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Rules of Debate

I'm reading an introduction into Eastern Philosophy and I appreciated what I read today of the rules of philosophical debate established by the Naiyayika school in India.  There are 3 types of debate--discussion (vada), disputation (jalpa), and destructive criticism (vitanda).  Here's an excerpt:

Vada is concerned with arriving at the truth through rational discussion. The aim is not simply to win the other party over to your view, but to work through the arguments together.  Even if agreement cannot be reached, the debate will succeed if each party comes to a good understanding of the other's position.  A successful debate is one in which both participants explain their position using the five-membered Nyaya form of argument and without breaking any of the rules of reasoning.

Wow, that sounds really good and constructive.  I wish we had more of that type of public discourse.  And I appreciated these ideas:

This framework for debate was developed to be conducive to the exchange and clarification of ideas.  The respondent is not allowed simply to contradict the proponent's thesis and advance another in its place.  Instead the thesis has to be thoroughly examined in the terms offered by the proponent.  The respondent has to put himself into the mindset of the proponent and appreciate the force of the arguments from that person's point of view.


Drifting Flowers of the Sea

Drifting Flowers of the Sea

by Sadakichi Hartmann 

 

Across the dunes, in the waning light,
The rising moon pours her amber rays,
Through the slumbrous air of the dim, brown night
The pungent smell of the seaweed strays—
From vast and trackless spaces
Where wind and water meet,
White flowers, that rise from the sleepless deep,
Come drifting to my feet.
They flutter the shore in a drowsy tune,
Unfurl their bloom to the lightlorn sky,
Allow a caress to the rising moon,
Then fall to slumber, and fade, and die.

White flowers, a-bloom on the vagrant deep,
Like dreams of love, rising out of sleep,
You are the songs, I dreamt but never sung,
Pale hopes my thoughts alone have known,
Vain words ne’er uttered, though on the tongue,
That winds to the sibilant seas have blown.
In you, I see the everlasting drift of years
That will endure all sorrows, smiles and tears;
For when the bell of time will ring the doom
To all the follies of the human race,
You still will rise in fugitive bloom
And garland the shores of ruined space.