"Freedom: Use it or Lose It" by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

I am a huge fan of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. In the podcast linked below, Rabbi Sacks lays out, with his usual extraordinary erudition, what is at stake for both faith and human dignity if human free will is illusory. I finally don't agree with his conclusion (that we have free will and it is synonymous with resistance to bad habits and addiction), or his assertion that belief in human free will is indispensable to faith, but he places the question in context better than anyone else could:

Image: From Rabbi Sack’s podcast

January 28, 2018 - Celibacy

Brothers and sisters: I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.  I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.

1 Corinthians 7

This is Paul’s argument for celibacy.  The Catholic Church is widely criticized for its continued adherence to it.   

But celibacy is a widely practiced discipline among many faiths and philosophers.  Buddhist monks are generally celibate.  Hindu priests are generally celibate.  The monks of some branches of Taoism are celibate.  Henry David Thoreau was celibate – but maybe not voluntarily. The Dalai Lama is celibate. Mahatma Gandhi was celibate (to a fault). Epicurus and Lucretius were celibate.  Judaism has the tradition of the Nazarite – men who took vows of celibacy and did not cut their hair or drink alcohol for a period of time.  Samson was a Nazarite and John the Baptist may have been one too. And, of course, salacious rumor aside, it appears Jesus was celibate but clearly had not taken the Nazarite vow (he drank alcohol fairly regularly by his own account).  Only Islam (other than Sufism) and some confessions within Protestantism have no tradition of it, placing more emphasis on other disciplines.

Why is celibacy so ubiquitous?

Every tradition, whether religious or not, that seeks to understand the well-lived life concludes that self-discipline and self-denial are important parts of it - including celibacy for the most committed individuals. Self-discipline and self-denial are part of a ‘whole’ life. Of course, ‘whole’ and ‘holy’ come from the same German root. Paul’s argument sounds a little prudish to modern ears, but it is in keeping with the conclusion of many thinkers across a broad spectrum of traditions.

Image: St. Paul at his Desk, Rembrandt (1633).

January 21, 2018 - Jonah

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying: "Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you." So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the Lord's bidding. Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day's walk announcing, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, " when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

The Book of Jonah

The story of Jonah is often dismissed as a children’s tale about a man being swallowed by a whale.  Those who take the story slightly more seriously see it as a warning to obey the will of God.

The story is pretty simple:  God commands Jonah to preach to the Ninevites (the imposing enemy of the Israelites) to mend their ways or be destroyed.  Jonah doesn’t want to go and, instead of heading inland to Nineveh, runs for the coast and gets on a boat.  God is piqued and tosses vessel around in a storm. Jonah reveals to his shipmates that the storm is God’s wrath and they throw him overboard.  Jonah is swallowed by a fish.  

But this amounts to only a small fraction of the story – both in terms of ink and in terms of importance.  Jonah is eventually spit up on the shore and he goes to Nineveh to demand their repentance.  Much to his chagrin, they instantly do exactly as asked and God accepts their contrition.

Only here does the real story begin.  Jonah is enraged by the Ninevites’ repentance and demands that God destroy the city anyway.  God is disarmingly perplexed and asks, “Do you do well to be angry?”  Jonah doesn’t care and persists in his anger no matter how hypocritical or silly God makes him look.

This is a recurrent theme in Scripture.  God doesn’t distinguish between the good and the bad, the worthy or the unworthy – we do – and we demand that He do too.  But He makes the rain fall on the good and the bad alike. Multiple parables have this as its theme: The Prodigal Son, the Workers in the Vineyard, and another almost universally misinterpreted passage: The Beatitudes.

If we do not have free will and if God is aware of this and interested in being fair-minded He cannot possibly reward good behavior and punish bad. That God doesn’t reward good behavior and punish bad is a central and recurrent theme, but we don’t want to see it - no matter how hypocritical or silly it makes us look.   

Image: Pieter Lastman - Jonah and the Whale (1621)

January 14, 2018 - God Calling

Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD where the ark of God was. The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am." Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me." "I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep." So, he went back to sleep. Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli. "Here I am, " he said. "You called me." But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet. The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time. Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me." Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening." When Samuel went to sleep in his place, the LORD came and revealed his presence, calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!" Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.

1 Samuel 3

Samuel was one of several characters in the Bible to be of miraculous birth; his mother having been incapable of becoming pregnant until she promised God her child would be raised a Nazarite (a form of asceticism) and receiving a blessing from Shiloh’s high-priest, Eli. Samuel would become an exceptionally important figure both spiritually and politically: he prophesied, assumed overall command of Israel after a series of cataclysmic military defeats, and eventually named Saul as Israel’s king.

This Sunday’s readings are about answering God’s call when it comes.  I like today’s first reading because it provides a simple transcript for us to follow:  "Speak, for your servant is listening."

To what is God likely to call us?  If we don’t have free will, as science and philosophy tell us, it cannot be the sort of moral command so ubiquitously imagined in the Judeo-Christian imagination. 

Perhaps it is an existential call - not a call to do or accomplish anything at all.  Perhaps instead of "do this", it is, "I am here. You are loved."  In the words of theologian Paul Tillich:

You are accepted! You are accepted! Accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.  Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.  Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.  Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!

This is not a fluffy ‘a trophy for every child’ theology, but the inevitable conclusion about the nature of our relationship to God if we take a scientific understanding of causality seriously.


Overheard on Facebook this morning:

A: I hate him more than I could ever have imagined hating a human. He is so grotesque, so classless, such an abuser, I would love to punch his lights out just because.

B: I’m right there with you, friend. I’ve hated him since I was a kid. Most NYers have long despised him, but these past two years have revealed so much more of his slime and douchebaggery and creepiness and corruption and ignorance and arrogance and just everything.

The participants of this exchange knew as many as one thousand of their acquaintances could see it.

Hate consumes them. It is hate for someone who does not know they exist.  They are using their hatred to find common ground and express their kinship with one another. It is, of course, hatred for what they perceive as bad, but what other kind is there?

Every tradition that seeks to explore and understand the well-lived life singles out hatred as counterproductive to that end:  Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, Confucius, Taoists, Buddhists, Zen, the Transcendentalists and, of course, Christianity.  Any system that acknowledges that we don’t have free will also inevitably concludes that hatred is irrational.

As Christianity's influence wanes a secular form of Manichaeism is enjoying a resurgence.  It is not limited to one side of the political spectrum or even just to politics.  Most disturbingly, it is resurgent in the name of tolerance, intelligence, and warmheartedness. We seem to be awash in it. It is displayed publicly with the expectation of assent and without self-consciousness or shame. 

January 7, 2018 - Epiphany

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season.  We celebrate the arrival of the magi from the east who do the infant Jesus homage.  The story of the magi is included in Matthew (but not in Luke, where the infant Jesus is visited by shepherds instead, nor in Mark or John which don’t have infancy narratives at all) to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah, which is today’s first reading:

Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow, for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.

Isaiah 60:1-6

The Gospel stories connect Jesus to numerous prophecies in Isaiah:   The magi’s status as foreigners from the east – non-Jews - fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that “all nations will stream toward the Lord’s house” (2:1-5).  Jesus’s common heritage with Jesse fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that, “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse”, and again that non-Jews will accept him: “The root of Jesse, set up as a signal to the nations, the gentiles shall seek out” (11:1-10).  Matthew outright quotes Isaiah 7:10-14 when Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to Mary: “All this happened to fulfill what the Lord has said through the property, ‘the virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’”.

Some people find the fact claims made in the Gospels to be dubious, and find that how Gospels themselves don’t agree on seemingly important facts render the factual veracity of the narratives questionable.  It is no surprise they drift away from faith.

But the point of the Gospel stories is not to prove God’s existence or even the status of Jesus as messiah.  It is rather to put into words what the ancient prophets have intuited about the nature of our relationship to God.  Overwhelming, that message is that God is with us, sympathetic to us, and overwhelmingly and irrationally loving.  

Image: Benozzo Gozzoli: Detail of Melchior in the Chapel of the Magi, Palazzo Medici, Florence