Thursday, March 28, 2013

Intimations of Mortality

The ancient Hebrews believed in Sheol, and the ancient Greeks believed in Hades, both were gray places of departed spirits.  Both post-mortem locations are characterized as places of shades, shadows, and the absence of vibrant life.  Much later the Israelites anticipated the resuscitation of the physical body but the Greeks had also looked forward to the Elysian Fields (or the Isles of the Blessed) as a place of reward for the heroes, sons of the Gods, and those who lived noble lives.  In Christianity, Hell is the eternal fate of the damned, while the righteous will enter the blessed state of Heaven.
             Beliefs are not "intimations of immortality" (Wordsworth).  Intimations are indirect hints or suggestions of a future lying beyond the realm of the physical senses, which cannot be directly experienced.  In our day a hint of a post-mortem future comes generally from surgery patients who claim to have seen a bright light at the end of a long dark tunnel, and simultaneously having experienced feelings of peacefulness and reassurance from deceased friends and family who have "passed on."  Many such intimations that life continues beyond the grave can be found on the internet and in print media. 
 In Hebrew and Hellenistic antiquity there were also intimations of post-mortem survival.  For example, Odysseus sailed to Hades, the place of departed spirits, in the Odyssey (Book 11), where the dead were described as "mere shadows flitting to and fro"—not a pleasant prospect, but a "survival" of sorts.  On a brighter note there were a number of heavenly journeys, similar to the light at the end of the tunnel (See James Tabor, "Heaven, Ascent to" in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3.91-94).  Paul's trip to Paradise in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 is the only first-hand reported ascent  in the New Testament, but alas Paul told us nothing (2 Cor 12:4).   
What strikes me about all of these suggested hints that something lies beyond the grave is that the unknown future is generally described from the perspective of the contemporary cultural and religious experience of the individual bringing the report. 
While I am neither a seer nor the son of a seer, I have on two occasions had what I will describe as "intimations of mortality" (my apologies to Wordsworth).  The first occurred in the 1970s during a long transatlantic flight.  While I was in a semi-conscious state (neither awake nor asleep), a poem called itself forth in my head.  That is, it "came to me"; I did not consciously create and craft it.
The land is long and empty;
And we dance through it;
Aging moths
Before flickering candles
Casting no shadows.
I am not sure I understand the poem, and I do not particularly like my interpretation of it.  The long narrow land, empty and shrouded in darkness, struck me as an utterly alien place devoid of life.  The moths, the only living things in the poem, are insects, which in this instance portray human life as fragile and ephemeral (i.e., "we" in the poem).  The fascination of the moths for the open flame and their macabre "dance" bringing them increasingly closer to self-immolation suggests their inevitable demise; the absence of shadow in a land dominated by candles suggests abject nothingness—not even shadows of the moths survive the dance.  The poem is dismal evoking a sense of complete hopelessness—I am not normally given to such pessimism, and have always been surprised the poem came out of my head. 
The second intimation came on the Greek island of Corfu in 2002: 
I awoke from a sound sleep in a clammy sweat, anxious and profoundly disturbed, the sounds of the Ionian Sea faint but distinct beyond the closed shutters of the room.  My vaguely remembered dream replaying itself in my mind only increased my agitation.  I had dreamed that the fabric of reality suddenly split down the side directly in front of me, and for a few seconds I stared into an empty void beyond.  In the second I realized that absolutely nothing lay beyond, I knew my own personal mortality—not intellectually but viscerally (Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason, 60). 
I did not at the time consider this dream a supernatural premonition, or a warning from God.  Rather I explained it as a wake-up call from my inner biological clock; it was a reasonable inference considering my advancing years. 
               Both experiences are rather pessimistic hints of a post-mortem future.  Considering my religious background, I do not think that I can easily dismiss these experiences as the result of my cultural and religious experience, as I suggested above was the case with the "lights at the end of the tunnel." My cultural and religious experiences, as most of you know, are heavily invested in traditional religious faith, so I should have expected something a bit more optimistic.  At the very least, however, these two experiences likely are subconscious indications of my repressed fears of a post-mortem future.  I was in control of neither the poem nor the dream, so I must assume each was evoked in some way from within my subconscious. 
               What should be said about intimations of immortality ("the lights at the end of the tunnel") and intimations of mortality ("the empty void beyond")?  Which experience provides a reliable hint of our common but hidden future—if either one?  Another question suggests itself:  why should my "intimations of mortality" be merely an expression of a repressed subconscious fear, but the more popular "intimations of immortality" be regarded as objective proof of life after death?  Why are not both subconscious responses that only tell us about ourselves?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

what should be done about EVIL IN THE WORLD?

This blog is now published in The Fourth R 26 (2013): 15-16 under the title “Where does Evil Come From?”

What I mean by “evil” is an unethical, deliberate malicious act that results in harm to human beings in some manner. By this definition, however, not everything hurtful happening to humans is evil. For example, an accident involving harm to another party is not an evil act, although it may maim or even result in someone’s death. What is lacking is deliberate malicious intent, and the one causing the accident may be as grieved as the friends and family of the injured party.
      Nature is benign. Although “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson, In Memoriam, canto 56), it does no “evil.” The forces of nature (floods, tornados, hurricanes disease, etc.) are not acting with malicious intent; they are simply natural forces operating according to natural laws—by that I mean they act according to the usual observed patterns for such things in the universe). The natural world and the animal and plant worlds are therefore ethically benign. When you get cancer or are bitten by a poisonous snake, maimed by a bear, or your home is destroyed by a tornado or flood these forces are not acting with malicious intent toward you, they are just being true to their nature.
       Unless, of course, you happen to subscribe to a belief that both the world of human beings and the world of nature fall under the influence of unseen mysterious, malicious, unethical forces that are able to use the usually benign forces of nature and even unsuspecting human beings for their own devious ends. In other words the natural world is benign unless you believe that Good and Evil are personified Spiritual Entities competing against one another in both natural and social worlds. These spiritual forces are popularly believed to harness the usually benign forces of the natural world and its living elements (flora and fauna) to their own ends, whether good or evil.
       Traditionally in the Judeo-Christian West, God gets the nod as the proponent for the Good. But what should we say about evil? Here the picture is not so clear. In the Hebrew Bible before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians (587 B.C.) there was only one figure in Israel that dispensed both good and evil in the world. Prior to the deportation of the Judahites to Babylon, God alone was believed to be the source of both good and evil (Job 2:10). Frequently one finds in Hebrew Bible the repetitive expression “the Lord repented of the evil” he planned to do (Exod 32:14; Jer 26:13, 19; Jonah 3:10; 1 Kings 14:10; 2 Sam 24:16), or “the Lord brings evil” against . . . . (Josh 23:15; 1 Kings 9:9; 2 Kings 21:12; Ezekiel 5:13-17; 2 Sam 17:14; 2 Kings 6:33; Neh 13:18; Job 42:11). Particularly impressive are the descriptions of God putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets to deceive (1 Kings 22:13-23), or the idea that God uses evil spirits to do his bidding (Judges 9:23; 1 Sam 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9). Evil intentions and actions were, of course, always thought to lie within human beings (Gen 6:5; 8:21; 50:20).
     After the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.), Cyrus the Great King of Persia permitted the exiles to return to Judah (Ezra 1:1-11), and sometime after their restoration in the land (described in Ezra and Nehemiah) Satan gradually becomes the source of personified evil. This evil force the Judahites developed from their exposure to Zoroastrian religion in which there were two competing forces in the universe, one Good and the other Evil. Initially Satan (accuser/adversary) was described as a functionary of the divine court (at this point he is not the incarnation of evil, Zech 3:1-2); his principal activity appears to be accusing or finding fault with human beings (Job 1:6-13; 2:1-6). The shift in theological thinking gradually coming after 539 B. C. is evident in a passage in the late text of 1 Chronicles 21:1 (ca. 350 B.C.) where Satan appears as the figure inciting David to number the tribes of Israel. In the earlier (ca. 650 B. C.; that is, prior to 539 B. C.) parallel text, which the Chronicler “borrowed” from 2 Sam 24:1, it is the Lord who incites David to number the tribes of Israel. This shift from the Lord to Satan is apparently due to changes in theological thinking in Israel.
     In the Jewish Apocrypha the earliest reference to an evil competitor to God comes in the Book of Jubilees (ca. 150 B.C.), where he appears as Mastema, Chief of the unclean demons (Jub 10:8). But even as late as the beginning of the second century B.C., Sirach can trace to God the “evil” aspects of nature (vipers, teeth of wild beasts, hail, famine, etc., Sirach 39:28-31).
       In the New Testament period (after 50 A. D.), Satan and the Devil are conceived as one figure (Rev 12:9; Mark 1:13—compare the substitution of Devil for Mark’s Satan: Matt 4:1; Luke 4:3). This figure, appearing as the chief opponent of God in the world, is known by a number of other names and designations; for example: Beelzebul (Matt 12:24); Belial (2 Cor 6:15); Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph 2:2); Ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)—among others. One statement by Jesus in Luke alludes to Satan’s former association with God’s Heavenly Court (Luke 10:18; but compare John 12:31). Revelation 12:7-12 describes a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels fight against the Dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan. Michael wins the battle and Satan is cast down to the earth, where he makes war on those who for a short time “keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” A description of a battle among the stars appears in The Sibylline Books (Book 5: at the end of the second century C.E.), which features the Morning Star, Lucifer (Latin), popularly thought to be waging war in the “heavens” (512-30).
       Lucifer (transliteration of the Latin: Lucifer “Light-bringer,” or Morning Star) is a special problem. Lucifer does not appear in the New Testament as an evil force, as such, although the equivalent term in Greek (Phosphoros) does appear in 2 Pet 1:19, where it is translated “morning star.” It does not, however, in 2 Pet 1:19 refer to an evil opponent of God. The name or description also appears in the Hebrew Bible where the word is translated “Day Star” in the RSV; in the context the word is applied to the King of Babylon (Isa 14:12-15). Later Christian writers (3rd century following) associated Lucifer with Satan. Origen (De Principiis, book 1, chapter 5) has been given credit with being the first specifically to argue that “Lucifer” is to be associated with Satan as the evil force in the world opposing God (Roberts/Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, 259-60).
       This brief summary brings me to an important question: is there in actuality a malicious Spiritual force in the world opposing God, or are we humans alone the source of deliberate malicious evil? It seems to me there are at least three responses: (1) recognize nature as benign and human beings as the only source of deliberate malicious evil in the world. (2) accept the idea that there is a God, and allow God to be the sole ruler of the world, and hence God is the source of both good and evil. (3) admit that pagan thought was more insightful than Hebrew thought in recognizing that a “good” God simply could not be the source of evil, and so they invented another competitive unseen wicked Power in the universe.
       The third option creates a host of theological difficulties, not the least of which is: does any force actually control the world—other than Mother Nature? And if so what do we do with Flip Wilson’s famous line: “The Devil made me do it”? What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University