Easter

It’s been over a year since I posted anything on this blog, so I figured that Easter would be a good day to resurrect it, as it were. It’s also appropriate because Easter was the subject of one of my favorite posts from my old blog Soul In Isolation, and I had meant to repost it last year but didn’t get around to it. So here is my original post from 5 years ago:

I haven’t talked much about religion on this blog, for much the same reason that people don’t talk about religion in “polite conversation.” Like politics, it is likely to rub up against some very strongly held beliefs and devolve into doctrinal and denominational bickering that is of little use to anyone. But aside from music, which I talk about profusely on this blog, and mathematics, which I try to avoid talking about outside of the classroom because it tends to put people to sleep, religion and politics are the two things I’m most interested in talking about.

Today is Easter, and I’d like to delve into some of the issues I have with the holiday. I have no problem with the mostly pagan symbols that are commonly associated with the day (eggs and rabbits primarily) that have more to do with the coming of spring than anything remotely Christian. I also have no problem with the supernatural nature of the story of Easter. Christianity is by no means the first religion to incorporate death and resurrection into its mythology (see Egypt and Osiris for a much earlier example). My primary issue with Easter is what it means, or at any rate is supposed to mean.

The message of Easter is absolutely central to Christianity, so it is essential that we understand where it comes from and why it arose in the first place if we wish to understand the Christian religion. I am not a scholar of religion or theology, but I have read a number of books on early Christianity so I will attempt to piece an explanation together from what I have read.

The people living in Palestine (the Greek name for the region) in the time of Jesus were living in the midst of several different cultures. The majority of the population of Judea and Galilee in particular was of Jewish descent and practiced Jewish rituals like the Sabbath, Seder, and various purity laws which restricted what one could eat among other things. The region also had significant exposure to Greek culture, including the language and modes of education, largely due to the Hellenistic Empire founded by Alexander the Great. Finally, at the time of Jesus, the area was under the control of the Roman empire, which mostly collected taxes, built roads and kept the peace.

The confluence of these cultures led to conflicting ideas about how to live one’s life, and who or what served as an authority both in the legal and religious sense. This led to a lot of questions, debates, and other intellectual activity, some of the fruits of which can be seen in the sayings, parables, and pronouncements of Jesus in the gospels. Two of the most important topics of discussion were power and purity.

In the near-eastern temple state, of which the Jewish kingdom centered around Jerusalem was one, there were two separate authority systems. The king was at the center of power, and was responsible for executing the laws of the land. The high priest in the temple was responsible for arranging rituals and adjudicating matters of purity, such as who or what was unclean and what needed to be done in the case of violations of the purity laws. These systems were challenged intellectually by the Greeks and politically by the Romans.

This was the context in which the early Christians came to terms with the life and death of Jesus. Most of the early Christian traditions were oral, though by the 50’s and 60’s written works began to appear as well. Some of these were collections of sayings like the Gospel of Thomas, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the source of the material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark (known by New Testament scholars as “Q”). Some of these were collections of stories reminiscent of those in the Old Testament about Moses and Elijah (walking on water, the loaves and fishes). Others were pronouncements, healings, and other challenges to the interpretation of the purity laws made by competing sects such as the Pharisees.

None of these writings contained references to the crucifixion and resurrection that are central to the story of Easter. This is not all that surprising as it was likely somewhat embarrassing that the founder of the schools of thought that generated these writings was tortured and executed by the hated Roman occupiers.

Through the letters of Paul, however, there is evidence of yet another group of early Christians that commemorated the death of Jesus in the manner of a Greek hero cult, and formulated some of the earliest versions of the kerygma or proclamation of the death and resurrection of the Christ. I use the title “Christ” here instead of the name “Jesus” because that is how this group referred to Jesus, using the Greek word “khristos” which means “anointed one” and is a literal translation of the Hebrew word “messiah”. A messiah in the Jewish tradition was a person chosen by God to lead the Jewish people to defeat whoever happened to be oppressing, enslaving, or occupying them at the time.

Paul went a step further in his Epistle to the Romans by arguing that through the life and death of the Christ, the followers of Jesus were made righteous by their faith. This wouldn’t have made much sense if the Christian movement had stayed exclusively Jewish, since Jews were made righteous by following the laws of purity as set down by the temple authorities. Due largely to Paul, the movement had expanded to include gentiles as well as Jews. This caused quite a stir with the so-called “pillars” of Jerusalem, notably Peter and James. Paul and Peter managed to come to a sort of truce where Peter would preach to the circumcised (the Jews) and Paul would preach to the uncircumcised (the gentiles).

Preaching to the gentiles meant dealing with the sticky issues of the purity laws. Paul’s loophole for the gentiles was that they did need to obey the Jewish purity laws to be righteous. Instead, they could be made righteous through their faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah. This concept of righteousness by way of faith is a key part of the meaning of the story of Easter.

While Paul spoke often of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the story of Easter does not appear in any of his letters, which were probably written in the 50’s, around the same time as the first drafts of the various sayings collections mentioned earlier. It wasn’t until after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. at the end of the first Jewish-Roman war that the first version of the Easter story was written, in the Gospel According to Mark.

The Jewish revolt in 66 C.E. and the ensuing war with the Romans culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was a tremendous crisis for the Jewish people. When the Romans occupied Palestine they diminished the authority of the Jewish King, the center of power in the temple state. When they destroyed the temple they diminished the authority of the Jewish High Priest, the center of purity in the temple state. Everything that defined the lives of the Jewish people had been upended, and they needed a new way to establish their identity without the temple. This was the moment in which Christianity and modern Judaism were born.

The Gospel of Mark attempted to combine earlier oral traditions of sayings, pronouncements, and miracles into a “bios” or biography of Jesus, centered around the story of the arrival, capture, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem. Up until that point, Jerusalem had not played a significant role in the stories of Jesus, other than the fact that Peter, James, and others were based there, according to Paul. All of the stories of Jesus had taken place in Galilee, where he grew up and spent the majority of his life. After the destruction of the temple, Jerusalem became much more relevant.

Here is where, after all this background (which turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated), we get to the meaning of Easter. The current Christian dogma, which may be the only thing that unites the disparate sects and denominations of the Christian church, is that Jesus died for the forgiveness of our collected sins, and through his resurrection and our faith we are saved from eternal punishment and rewarded with eternal life. This dogma is actually a collection of a number of different ideas that were developed over the history of the early Christian church, and in the humble opinion of the author is complete and utter nonsense.

I hold this position for two reasons. First, the rationale behind and context of the story of Easter in the Gospel of Mark has been completely misrepresented by this modern formulation. Second, the consequences of this assertion have caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering throughout the history of the various branches of the Christian Church. I have already established most of the context of Mark, it remains only to explain the rationale, and consider the effects.

The rationale behind the story in Mark is that Jesus was unrighteously persecuted, and was made a martyr by the Romans. Much like the Maccabean Martyrs two centuries earlier, his wrongful death was interpreted as a sacrifice which conferred righteousness upon his followers. This interpretation fit in nicely with Paul’s concept of righteousness by faith as a justification for including gentiles in the Christian church. It also served as an explanation and a reaction to the destruction of the temple. The destruction was tied to the collusion of the Jewish temple authorities with the Romans who tortured and executed the Christ. More importantly, Mark set up Jesus as a replacement for both the King (who had great power) and the High Priest (who had great purity). All of these things positioned the Christian movement with Jesus as it’s founder and authority figure as a replacement for the temple state system of the past.

Here’s the real sticking point: the forgiveness of sins that we associate with the story of Easter was a way of expanding the membership of the Christian movement to include those who did not follow the Jewish laws of purity. It was a means of defining righteousness in terms of something other than the traditions and taboos of the Jewish people. This is what allowed Christianity to spread throughout the world, as it was no longer tied to a single ethnic group. While this notion is very enlightened and commendable, it should not be confused with the concept of forgiveness in general, which is also very enlightened and commendable, but not relevant to the original story of Easter.

What is not enlightened or commendable is the way in which this story and the message behind it has been twisted and turned on its head to create a new division based not upon ethnic lines but upon doctrine. As the Christian church became more powerful after Constantine’s conversion and the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E., it began to persecute those who did not accept the dogma of the resurrection, be they Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Animist, or Atheist. Those who believe will go to Heaven to receive their eternal reward, and those who do not believe will go to Hell to receive their eternal punishment. This is not only inconsistent with the vision of the early Christians, it is inconsistent with common sense. Are those who commit terrible crimes, yet repent at the end of their lives rewarded in Paradise, while those whose lives are defined by charity and good will who don’t subscribe to the dogma damned to eternal torment?

But what of the more progressive denominations of Christianity that do not hold to these dogmatic beliefs? While I have great respect and admiration for Christians who adhere to the teachings of Jesus to give aid to the poor and sick and treat others with kindness, I have to ask: are these qualities uniquely Christian? Is it really necessary to retell a story which was constructed in a completely different context, and embellished with supernatural events (OK I guess I do have a problem with that part too) in order to get these points across?

It is my personal opinion, though it is shared by others, that the story of Easter is ultimately a distraction from the more important and universal principles espoused by Jesus and his early followers: treat others with compassion and strive to make this world more just. Everything else is just window dressing.

On Choice and Life

My next selection from my old posts is one I’m particularly proud of. I was a bit of a late comer to feminism, though looking back I was certainly brought up in an atmosphere where feminist notions were considered non-controversial. For the most part, I just assumed that most people believed those things as well. By 2010 however I had read enough and seen enough to realize that the society we live in has been thoroughly saturated in patriarchy.

Nowhere is that fact clearer than in the so-called “debate” about abortion. I used to be naive enough to believe that both sides of the debate were arguing in good faith. I have to credit Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon for disabusing me of the notion that the anti-abortion movement was anything but a desperate attempt by men frightened of losing their traditional position of power to control and police the sexuality of women.

This post from February 7th, 2010 was an exercise in taking the guiding philosophy of the anti-abortion movement to its logical conclusion. The one thing I regret is the reliance on bumper-sticker social justice slogans, though I think the familiar phrases tend to connect better with a general audience.

There seems to be a big to-do about a certain Super Bowl ad this year. The network running this ad has rejected ads from other religious organizations in the past. What makes this one so special? Well, for starters, this advertisement was funded by an organization called “Focus on the Family.” What could be less controversial and more wholesome than focusing on families? That is, as long as it’s a soft focus, and a selective one at that. Focus on the Family would rather you didn’t focus on families with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons, single mothers, single fathers, interracial couples, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, pagans, atheists, agnostics, feminists, or anyone who might want to have an abortion. They would much rather you focus on two-parent, heterosexual, same-race, Christian families that see all of their pregnancies through to the end. Even if that end threatens the life of the mother, as it did for Pam Tebow.

“But this ad celebrates choice!”, you say. And indeed it does. Focus on the Family and the pro-life (or anti-choice as some would have it) movement in general is all about choice, as long as that choice is the right choice. They believe women should have the freedom to make the right choice about abortion (not having one), that teenagers and young adults should have the freedom to make the right choice about sex (not having it until they get married), that same-sex couples should have the freedom to make the right choice about marriage (not getting one), that families of persons in a persistent vegetative state should have the freedom to make the right choice about life-support (not pulling the plug), that gays and lesbians in the military should have the freedom to make the right choice about serving their country (not doing it, or not telling anyone about being gay), the terminally ill should have the freedom to make the right choice about ending their lives (not doing it) and that everyone should have the freedom to make the right choice about their religion (accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior). Choices are so much easier to make when there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and the beauty of the philosophy of Focus on the Family is that there always is. It’s even easier to make the right choice when the government makes the wrong one illegal.

“But this ad celebrates life!”, you say. And indeed it does. Focus on the Family and the pro-life movement are all about life too, as long as that life is the right life. Living the right life is not just about making the right choices. Ideally, it’s about not having the capacity to make the wrong choices as well. After all, wasn’t original sin all about a woman making the wrong choice to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and convincing a man to partake in it as well? Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if God had not given them the ability to make that decision?

There is a word for the inability to make the wrong choices: innocence. The innocence of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. What would Jesus do? He would do the right thing. That’s why the highest form of life for Focus on the Family is the fetus. A fetus can not make choices, and therefore can not make wrong choices. A fetus is completely dependent on its mother, and we should all aspire to be just as dependent on God, the church, and the government (as long as it is run in accordance with God and the church). The next best thing to a fetus is a person in a persistent vegetative state. Terry Schiavo was unable to make the wrong choice to end her life in a dignified fashion, and her husband should have been equally unable to make that choice for her.

Of course, because of Eve’s poor decision making skills, the rest of us can only aspire to be as innocent as a fetus. Aside from choosing Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior so that we can be forgiven for the sins we have committed as well as those we have inherited, we can choose not to repeat Eve’s mistake: choosing knowledge. It was knowledge that started us down the path to sin, so whenever possible we must avoid any knowledge that would take us further down this path.

There is a word for this too: ignorance. We must ignore the words of Charles Darwin who observed that life adapts to its environment by means of natural selection. We must ignore the words of Bertrand Russell who argued that no evil deed performed in a finite lifetime is justly punished by eternal damnation. We must ignore the words of Martin Luther King who preached that all of God’s children should be judged by the content of their character. And above all else we must ignore the words of Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” If we do not ignore these words, if we allow our curiosity to get the best of us, if we open our eyes to the possibility that not every decision can be cast in black and white, we may someday find ourselves making difficult decisions. Even worse, we may find ourselves taking responsibility for the decisions we make.

So kudos to Pam Tebow for choosing life. And even more kudos to the government of The Philippines for making it illegal for her to choose otherwise. If every government in the world would make it illegal for us to make the wrong choices, no one would ever have to worry about facing the consequences of our actions. If every religion in the world would keep us from knowledge that may lead us to difficult questions, no one would ever have to worry about the rightness of their actions or their beliefs. In short, we could all live happily in a persistent vegetative state, and never leave the womb at all.

Cultivating Your Outernet

I’ll be posting a few of my favorite entries from my old blog here in the next few days or so. This one is from June 14th 2009 back when I was still living in West Virginia. I think it’s probably the first time I really took advantage of the medium to write something more than just a journal entry.

I’ve been spending a great deal of time on the Internet in the last month or so between the end of the spring semester and the start of summer nerd camp, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever had a lot of time on their hands, little to do, and a cable/DSL/T1/FIOS/neural implant connection. But today I was thinking about why people spend so much time on the Internet in the first place — the alternative being going outside, visiting real places, and talking to real people. Could it be that we find the Internet more interesting than real people, places, and things? How could that be, since the former is only an indirect approximation of the latter? Are we just lazy? Do we have allergies? Perhaps, but I think that ultimately the problem is one of marketing. The Internet is an extremely well marketed tool, and a big part of that is that it has a cool name: The Internet. Clearly the world outside of the Internet needs a cool name too in order to compete for our attention. I have decided to call it “The Outernet.”

As a computer scientist, I mustn’t fail to distinguish here between the Internet and the World Wide Web: the Internet is the networked hardware (servers, routers, etc.) that the software that makes up the World Wide Web (twitter, facebook, youtube, blogs, mittromneyisatool.com, etc.) runs on. Similarly, the Outernet is the hardware (trees, animals, pavement, oceans, chemical plants) that the software of the World Wide World (us) runs on. Sometimes quite literally (though sadly not for me these days as my knees will not abide anything faster than a brisk walking pace).

As an amateur philosopher, I should also point out that our experience of both the Internet and the Outernet can be very subjective. Though they share the same objective qualities, my Internet is not the same as your Internet. So we each have our very own Internet and Outernet which neatly intersects with the Internets (hey, maybe Dubya was on to something…) and Outernets of other people.

Finally, as a very amateur gardener, I can’t help but think of both ‘nets as gardens of living things in need of cultivation. The concept of cultivation is commonly used as a spiritual metaphor, and for good reason (it is no coincidence that “cultivation”, “culture”, and “cult” all come from the same Latin root). Living things need nourishment, space, and pruning in order to be fruitful. I think that sometimes we put a great deal of energy into cultivating our own personal Internets, partly because we have a great deal of control over our experiences as well as an easy way to protect ourselves from them by closing our connection, rebooting, or shutting down entirely.

However, we all too often forget to put energy into cultivating our Outernets. Perhaps this is because we have much less control over our experiences there, and no easy way to protect ourselves from those direct experiences. But therein lies the great tension of the Outernet: while it is sometimes dangerous and out of control, it is also exciting and unpredictable. It also forces us to inhabit our bodies which can be both an exhilarating and frightening experience. The Internet, on the other hand, tends to bring us out of ourselves and therefore less present.

The Internet pulls us out. The Outernet brings us back in.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the Internet. There are many things that it allows us to do that are sometimes prohibitively difficult in the Outernet. It would be quite hypocritical for me to use the Internet to communicate to others that they should not use the Internet to communicate to others. What I’m saying is that we must guard against using the Internet too frequently to do things that may require more effort in the Outernet, but reward that effort with direct experience that the Internet can not provide.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to step out into my Outernet to prune back the ivy and trees that have been encroaching on the path to our home. I encourage you to do likewise.

Class is now in session. Please be seated.

This is Pedantic Professor 101. I am your instructor Dr. Nicholas Coleman, a.k.a. The Pedantic Professor. If this is not the class you signed up for, you may want to take this opportunity to awkwardly slink out of the room. Those of you who have signed up and wish to participate in class should start by carefully reading the syllabus.

Thank you for your attention. Class is now dismissed.