Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Death, Judgment, Afterlife

For students in various Humanities classes, or courses in ancient civilizations, the essay question about death, judgment, and afterlife is assigned so regularly that its predictability makes it ready material for a joke. Yet it remains a central question in modern cultures and ancient cultures.

The Egyptian concept of "maat" (transliterated into English with various spellings) is a good example. The concept is sometimes personified into a goddess of sorts, and other times treated as an abstract principle. In either case, the fiction of weighing the human heart against a feather on a balance remains a powerful metaphor, and crystalizes not only the Egyptian notion of judgment, but also that of numerous other cultures, ancient and modern.

By contrast, the New Testament offers a complex and confusing idea of judgment, which - however interpreted - is rather different from the Egyptian one. Jesus offers us a tension between his famous dictum "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" and his willingness to judge: he tell a woman caught in adultery, "Go now and leave your life of sin." Whether one agrees or disagrees with Jesus, an interpretive challenge presents itself as we seek to create some harmony out of this tension: how do we find the consistency in the apparent, but merely apparent, contradiction?

A follower of Jesus, named variously Saul and Paul, gives us a clue in a letter he wrote to early followers of Jesus living in Rome:

Now if you feel inclined to set yourself up as a judge of those who sin, let me assure you, whoever you are, that you are in no position to do so. For at whatever point you condemn others you automatically condemn yourself, since you, the judge, commit the same sins. God’s judgment, we know, is utterly impartial in its action against such evil-doers. What makes you think that you who so readily judge the sins of others, can consider yourself beyond the judgment of God?
We see here the same tension: a command not to judge, and - in the same breath - a clear judgment that some are, in fact, sinning. The determination that someone is sinning is itself a judgment. So how can we reconcile Paul's command not to judge, delivered in a bundle with a clear judgment. The irony is compressed: we are commanded not to judge those who sin. By identifying them as those who sin, has not Paul already judged them?

We can resolve the tension existing in Paul's words - and the words of Jesus - by noting a careful distinction: We are commanded not to judge people. We are left free to judge actions, indeed, encouraged to judge actions. In this distinction, not only can we resolve the internal tension within the New Testament, but we can also capture the exact nature of the different between Jesus and the Egyptian concept of maat.

If I judge a man's actions as evil, I am still prohibited from judging the man himself as evil. Here introduced is a distinction between agent and action, between the person and the what he does. If everyone who does an evil act is reckoned as evil, then all humans would be evil, because all humans, sooner or later, do the wrong thing. If all who do something right are reckoned as good, then all people will be called good, because everybody, sooner or later, does something right. Paul and Jesus are acknowledging the ethical reality that every human performs a mixture of actions - some good, some bad. We can sort out the actions, but we cannot label the individual.

Instead of sorting humanity into two groups - as the Egyptian maat does - the New Testament places all people into the same boat: morally equivocal, committed both virtuous deeds and sins. The Egyptian worldview creates two classes of humans, with the inevitable if unintended result that they will be pitted against each other; the New Testament offers a unifying notion, that all humans find themselves in the same ethical predicament - a morally ambiguous nature - and looking to the same solution - to cast themselves upon the mercy of a deity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What History Can Tell Us, And What It Can't

It is clear that religion is one of the driving forces of history; many significant events and trends are fueled by faith: the abolition of slavery in America, the right of women to vote, the environmental movement to protect the earth, freedom of speech and of the press, various forms of aid to developing countries, and international negotiating organizations seeking to avoid war. Many other examples could be added. Some of these are obviously more religious than others, but historical investigation will find that all of them originated in a worldview shaped by faith and by sacred text.

But what can history tell us about religion? We are instructed to strive ever more for a neutral objectivity - studying religion in history, and the history of religion, can be done in this way - but for someone who is the product of American popular culture, it is a foreign notion. History can describe for us those events and trends, and their emergence from a particular spiritual tradition. Indeed, history is obliged to do so. History cannot, however, evaluate truth claims made by specific religions, because those claims are sometimes about things bigger than history, beyond history, and embracing history from without. Walther Eichrodt writes that

history can say nothing about the final truth of a matter; that is, it is unable to make any claims concerning its validity for our current existence or its significance for our worldview. To the extent that historical research is able to view and to describe more precisely any event - also anything of an intellectual scope - only within a system of relations, its assertions about a historical entity always remain relative; that is, they have meaning only in relation to other entities and only in this sense command assent. To judge regarding what is true and what is false, what has an absolute claim to validity and what is worthless, continues to be reserved fundamentally to the science of values, to philosophy or to dogmatics.
History can tell us, for example, which religions lead more often to war, and which ones lead more often to peace; history can tell us which religions are inclined to expand the dignity and rights of women, and which ones are inclined to minimize women and their social roles; history can tell us which religions see an essential value in every human life, a value which demands recognition, and which religions see some human lives as worth less than others, and therefore expendable.

But history cannot tell us which religions are true, and which are false; history cannot tell us which beliefs are good, and which are evil. These determinations belong to a higher academic discipline. The historian may narrate the roles of various spiritual traditions in history, but he may not make value judgements about those traditions. Those judgements are to be made by the philosopher and the theologian.

History shows us that religion is the engine of history, that faith propels great historical movements; but history must refrain from deciding which religion is ultimately the true religion. Determining what is 'true religion' - this cannot be left in the realm of mere opinion: this is the task of rational investigation, close textual study, and academic theology.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Era of the Castle

The Middle Ages was a time of creativity and innovation - and certainly not "The Dark Ages" or reign of superstition and ignorance which old history books tell it to be. The inventiveness of scientists and rulers, of philosophers and bankers during the Medieval centuries was born of necessity. The fall of the Roman Empire (at least the western half of it) created a power vacuum, and even an environment of personal danger, until the institutions and concepts of the Middle Ages could offer a better social organization principle to replace it. Historian Irma Simonton Black sees the emergence of a safer, and intellectually more stimulating, culture symbolized in the castle,
a large stone structure surrounded by walls and topped with towers. The castle might be built up on a hill so it could be defended easily, or it might be encircled with a wide ditch, called a moat, which had to be crossed to reach its gates.
Such a structure was not a family home for the royals: it was a small village unto itself. A community which included the various crafts and skills needed to be relatively self-reliant and sometimes even isolated.
A castle was home to many people. Inside its walls, in a large central building made of stone, lived a noble, his family, and his knights. Servants and soldiers belonging to the noble lived outside in the courtyard or bailey, in a cluster of small wooden buildings. Here food was prepared, tools and arms were made and repaired. If the people who lived inside the castle walls wanted to go outside them, they crossed a drawbridge which was kept lowered by day, except in times of war.
The legal concept of 'citizenship' as we now know it arose during this time, and the technical term for citizen literally meant "one who lived inside the walls of the castle" (Bürger). Some large castles would have well over a hundred permanent residents, and thus truly be societies unto themselves. This arrangement arose from the defensive needs immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire in the year 476. When the Middle Ages fully emerged, the actually need for this physical security diminished, but the castle remained as a symbol. Yet the society of those who lived in the village surrounded by the protective walls interacted with those who lived in the less secure world beyond:
Outside the castle walls lived peasants in their huts. If there was an attack, they protected themselves by fleeing over the drawbridge and inside. These peasants were known as serfs and they worked the noble's land.
Indeed, the noble was obliged, by common law and by sacred oath, to offer protection to the serfs who lived outside the walls. Here we see a truly Medieval notion: the moral and legal duty to assist in the defense of others. Although this setup may seem strange or romantic to us, "such a way of life" was
the only sensible arrangement. It came about because of events that happened hundreds of years before, when the Roman Empire collapsed.
Determined both to rescue themselves from the chaos of a power vacuum, and to build a more reasonable society than the Romans had, the people of central Europe observed first-hand the fall of the empire, and took from the old Roman structure the few ideas which were practical; abandoning other, less useful, Roman patterns, they fabricated the remainder of their new social order from their inherited Germanic traditions. (By way of explanation, most of the cultures of central and western Europe were Germanic, but not German: France is named after the Frankish dynasties, the Germanic royal families who ruled it; England's language and culture were nearly identical to those of central Europe until the invasions of 1066 A.D. and later.)
The northern tribes that settled on the Roman lands in Europe were bands of fighters who followed one leader in battle. In return, the leader or chief supported his fighting men with what he took from the people he conquered. This system of personal loyalty to a chief was the basis for a way of living called feudalism.
Feudalism sometimes has a bad image in older history books: the word 'feudal' is even sometimes used in a negative sense. In reality, the feudal system offered a vast improvement over the political structures of the Roman empire. A centralized system, the old empire was unapproachable for those living out in the countryside; the emperor gave absolute commands, and no questioning or negotiating was possible. In feudalism, a de-centralized system, a local 'lord' was approachable - you could negotiate with him, and his authority was based on negotiation with those below him and those above him: a flexible system.

In this way, feudalism was also superior to the absolute monarchies which would follow it in later centuries. An autocrat like Louis XIV would not have been possible in a feudal system.

Feudalism, or the feudal system, as it was often called, grew gradually. In the very beginning, each lord had his vassals, or followers, who lived in his castle as a kind of personal bodyguard. Maintaining his vassals was very expensive for the lord. So when his vassals wanted lands and castles of their own, the lord was glad to assign holdings to them.
In this way, the lord's vassals got their own estates, could support themselves, and so relieved the lord of significant expenses.