May 15, 2011

1. Bin Laden and Nietzsche

Bin Laden and his fellow terrorists subscribed to a fanatical, fundamentalist worldview, a worldview that idealized the distant past, a worldview that was narrow and parochial, a worldview that isolated them from mankind as a whole, a worldview that stifled their own spiritual growth. They adopted this worldview because the lofty, poetic phrases of the Koran inspired them and moved them, Arab history inspired them, and no other worldview inspired them. When they looked to the West, our civilization didn’t offer them an attractive worldview, an attractive philosophy. They failed to find a healthy, forward-looking worldview partly because the West failed to provide one. Why did the West fail to develop, and offer the rest of the world, a philosophy that met both spiritual needs and intellectual demands?

The worldview of the West had long centered on monotheism, but traditional monotheism had gradually lost its hold on Western thinkers. Finally Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” The death of God created a vacuum, a vacuum into which various unhealthy ideas entered — nihilism, Nazism, Marxism, etc. Only now is the West beginning to create a healthy philosophy, but it will take time for this philosophy to take root in the West, and perhaps even more time for it to take root in other parts of the world. Hitler’s Holocaust was, in my view, a result of the death of God, as was Stalin’s Gulag, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, etc. And I would argue that bin Laden’s 9/11 attack was also a result of the death of God.

“Wait a minute, wait just a minute. Marx and Stalin may have been atheists, but bin Laden certainly wasn’t. We can all agree that bin Laden believed in the existence of God. So how can you argue that bin Laden’s terrorism resulted from the death of God?” Bin Laden adopted a narrow, antiquated worldview because he didn’t find (or rather, his teachers didn’t find) a healthy philosophy in the West. Bin Laden felt, not without reason, that the West had reached a dead-end of atheism, nihilism, and decadence. If you trace bin Laden’s terrorism back to its roots, as I’ve tried to do in previous issues, you find that Muslim terrorism is related to a Marxist, anti-colonial worldview that justified, and even encouraged, violence. This Marxist worldview grew out of the death of God; indeed, atheism was one of Marx’s central tenets. So it isn’t far-fetched to argue that the collapse of Western monotheism led to the collapse of the World Trade Center. In my view, the development of a new, forward-looking worldview is important not only for the West, but for the world as a whole.

2. Wars

A. Did Canada and Australia suffer from being part of the British Empire? If they didn’t suffer, isn’t it safe to assume that the U.S. wouldn’t have suffered much if it had remained part of the British Empire, instead of breaking away in the American Revolution? Just as Canada and Australia became independent gradually and peacefully, so the U.S. could have become independent without blood being shed. Was the American Revolution necessary?

B. As for the Civil War, emancipation was a worldwide trend, and American slaves would have eventually been emancipated, even if the Civil War hadn’t been fought. “But Lincoln’s chief purpose was to preserve the Union.” But was preserving the Union worth the enormous price that was paid for it? If the U.S. had been divided into two separate nations, these nations might well have peacefully re-united (as West and East Germany re-united), once the bone of contention (slavery) was removed. Before the Civil War began, did Lincoln realize how long and bloody it would be? Did he consider that the fruits of victory (emancipation and preservation-of-the-union) might be obtained peacefully, through patience, time, and compromise? Was the Civil War necessary?

C. As for World War I, it was enormously costly, and achieved little, beyond setting the stage for World War II.

D. As for World War II, it might seem that destroying the Nazis was a goal worth fighting for. But we should remember that destroying the Nazis enhanced the power of Stalin, who was scarcely less evil than Hitler. Was there an alternative to all-out war with Hitler? In 1938, Jung said,

The only way to save Democracy in the West [is] not to try to stop Hitler. You may try to divert him, but to stop him will be impossible without the Great Catastrophe for all.... I say let him go East. Turn his attention away from the West.... Let him go to Russia.1

In 1975, Eric Hoffer made a similar argument:

It was a fateful flaw of German statesmanship not to work for a whole-hearted reconciliation with France and Britain at any price so as to be able to canalize all German energies eastward. It was also a flaw of French and British statesmanship not to encourage a German Drang nach Osten.2

If the Jung-Hoffer strategy had been pursued, if all-out war had been avoided, it’s likely that the Holocaust wouldn’t have occurred, or wouldn’t have occurred on the same scale.

E. As for the Vietnam War, perhaps everyone would agree that it would have been best for the U.S. not to get involved. Conservatives argue that we should have fulfilled our commitments in Vietnam, instead of “cutting and running,” but I think even conservatives would admit that it would have been better not to get involved in the first place. On the other hand, it can be argued that the Korean War had a positive outcome, saving South Korea from North Korea’s fate, and Vietnam might have seemed, in 1962, like a re-run of Korea.

F. As for the Iraq War (the one that’s still in progress), it’s too early to say what its results will be, but the costs have been high, and the future is uncertain. If we had known at the start how high the costs would be, few would have thought those costs worth paying. True, we ousted an evil dictator, but the wave of revolution currently sweeping the Arab world makes it seem that he could have been ousted by other means.

G. As for the war in Afghanistan, it’s longer and more difficult than we anticipated, and creating a viable state is very difficult. Can we ever defeat the Taliban? If we hadn’t invaded Afghanistan, would the Taliban have eventually fallen through their own unpopularity, through domestic revolution? Now we’re committed to Afghanistan, and to Iraq, so we need to make the best of it.

3. Quickies

A. If you fall in love with someone, you’re acting like a silly, naive teenager (I suppose you’re going to live “happily ever after”?). But if I fall in love with someone, it’s an appropriate feeling based on the person’s special qualities.

B. Have sex with me, you’re a wonderful person. Have sex with someone else, you’re a slut.

C. If a man says to a woman, “I love you,” those words carry with them a certain obligation. But what if those words aren’t spoken aloud, what if they’re just thought? Does an unspoken thought carry with it an obligation?

4. David Brooks

A. David Brooks is perhaps the most admired commentator on the American scene. Though somewhat conservative, he manages to win praise from both Left and Right. He’s modest and unassuming, yet passionate and forceful. He’s a deep thinker, yet he stays abreast of current events.

In a recent New York Times column, Brooks wrote, “The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls... has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year.”3 It’s well known that healthy people often manage to obtain a disability benefit. Can anyone doubt that at least half of these 8.2 million don’t deserve this benefit? Would anyone argue that Americans are truly more infirm than they were ten years ago? This is the sort of waste and abuse that irritates conservatives, and makes them wary of government programs and government spending, and makes them oppose tax increases to provide for government spending.

B. In the last issue, I criticized Obama. One Phlit subscriber protested, and said that Obama’s deficit spending averted a Depression. I responded thus:

I’m not suggesting that Obama created the debt problem, or that The Big Bailout in 2009 was a mistake. I’m addressing the question, Where do we go from here? How do we reduce the debt, or at least slow its growth? It seems to me that the chief cause of the debt problem, in the next 20 years, is entitlements, and the Republican plan to rein in Medicare spending is a bold effort to solve the entitlement problem. Obama hasn’t joined hands with them; on the contrary, he’s using their plan to score political points. As David Brooks put it in his May 9 column, “Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive.”

C. In his May 9 column, Brooks said that 20% of American men between ages 25 and 54 aren’t working, up from just 4% in 1954. “35 percent of those without a high school diploma are out of the labor force, compared with less than 10 percent of those with a college degree.” What strikes me, however, is how many men in my town earn lots of money without having a college degree — carpenters, roofers, plumbers, etc. A roofer who hires and supervises teams of workers can make more than $10,000 per day, and the carpenters and plumbers aren’t far behind. Their children have little incentive to study hard, knowing that their fathers became rich without going to college.

How does the non-working 20% obtain food and housing? At least half, I imagine, have working wives. Perhaps the important question is not, How can we get everyone working? but rather, How can we foster leisure-time activities that are stimulating? How can we create a culture that respects and utilizes leisure?

D. Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, deserves credit for recognizing David Brooks’ ability, and fostering his career. The Weekly Standard is more conservative than Brooks, and recently ran an article that criticized Brooks’ May 9 column.4 Brooks had suggested that the non-working 20% should take classes at a community college, or receive unemployment benefits while they start businesses. The Standard said no, more government programs isn’t what we need. In fact, we have too many government programs already (said the Standard), and that’s why people don’t need to work:

If there is an option for people to get disability when they are not actually disabled, people will take it. If they get health care through Medicaid, eat with food stamps and live in subsidized housing, whether it’s their own or a girlfriend’s or mother’s, people will take it....

Solving this problem does not mean launching new programs or spending more money. It actually means spending less. It means limiting the time people can collect unemployment; it means restricting the ability of people to collect disability; it means that one doesn’t have medical insurance if one isn’t willing to work.

It is nice to think we can change individual motivations solely with carrots; the reality is that sticks have their place as well. There’s a reason why social welfare programs only grow over time — and almost never contract. There’s a reason folks commonly, over time, become more dependent on social welfare programs.

E. One problem that bedevils business owners is lawsuits. It’s well known that lawsuits are a headache for doctors, and there’s much talk about reforming medical malpractice, but it’s often forgotten that many business owners worry about lawsuits. The litigious nature of our society holds back all sorts of entrepreneurial activity. Brooks doesn’t mention this in his column. As the owner of a tiny database-programming business, I feel that lawsuits are my biggest danger, and my strongest incentive to close the business, or at least not try to expand it. My father was the owner of a construction-equipment business, and he struggled with lawsuits for much of his career, and he often warned me about this danger. Republicans have long attempted legal reform, but Democrats, who receive donations from the lawyer lobby, have long prevented it.

5. Judaism

Having discussed the first six chapters of Huston Smith’s World’s Religions, we now come to Chapter 7, “Judaism.” Smith says that the early Hebrews worshipped a God who was outside nature: “In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent: the gods were in nature.... The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature.”5

Smith says that “the supreme achievement of Jewish thought” is “not in its monotheism as such, but in the character it ascribed to [God].”6 The Greeks, Romans, and others viewed the gods as amoral, and indifferent to mankind. The Jews saw God differently: “God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works.”7 “Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans.”8 The Jews believed that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and comforted them in their Babylonian exile.

Was their conception of God influenced by their need to be rescued and comforted? Being a small nation, the Jews were repeatedly conquered and enslaved by larger nations, hence they may have had a psychological need for “heavenly support,” for a benevolent God. In other words, if they had been a large and powerful nation, the Jews may have conceived of God differently.

The Jewish conception of God may have molded Jewish moral thinking. As Nietzsche said, there’s master morality and slave morality. Slave morality values meekness and kindness; master morality has different values. The Jewish conception of a kindly God may have led to an emphasis on kindness as a moral value. Or perhaps we should say that the sociological factors that led to the conception of a kindly God also led to an emphasis on kindness and charity as moral values.

Since Christianity was born out of Judaism, Christianity views God as kindly, and preaches kindness toward our fellow man. “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” This isn’t master morality, this isn’t the morality of a powerful nation, a conquering nation.9

Smith says that Greek and Indian philosophy look down on matter, but Judaism respects the material world. “Archbishop William Temple used to say that Judaism and its offspring, Christianity, are the most materialistic religions in the world.”10 The Book of Genesis says, “God created the heavens and the earth... and behold, it was very good.” Smith says that the respect for matter leads to

  1. an interest in the material aspects of life, and an emphasis on humanitarian efforts to improve these material aspects
  2. a belief that salvation involves our material being (the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body)
  3. the Kingdom of God will come on earth; according to Christianity, God became flesh

Smith’s main thesis in this chapter is that Judaism built a worldview that made human life meaningful, valuable. Judaism found meaning in God (God is benevolent, and cares about man). It found meaning in creation (the world must be good because it was created by God; the material world is valuable). And it found meaning in man himself. “The striking feature of the Jewish view of human nature is that without blinking its frailty, it went on to affirm its unspeakable grandeur. We are a blend of dust and divinity.”11 Psalm 8 says that the Lord made man “a little lower than God, [and] crowned him with glory and honor.”12 So Judaism affirms the nobility of man, and this view of man is part of its larger view that the world as a whole is meaningful and valuable. This worldview bolstered the Jewish people, and helped them to endure; it also provided solace to non-Jews.

In addition to finding meaning in God, creation, and man, Judaism found meaning in history. While Hindus regarded history as a dream, an illusion, and Greeks regarded it as a cyclical process (like the seasons of the year), Jews regarded history as “the arena of God’s purposive activity.”13 They believed that “nothing in history happens accidentally. Yahweh’s hand was at work in every event — in Eden, the Flood, the Exodus, the Babylonian Exile — shaping each sequence into a teaching experience for his people.”14

While nature religions accepted reality as static and unchanging, Judaism saw God and nature as separate, hence they believed that “history is in tension between its divine possibilities and its manifest frustrations. A sharp tension exists between the ought and the is. Consequently, Judaism laid the groundwork for social protest. When things are not as they should be, change in some form is in order.”15 The prophets were the agents of change. “Protected by religious sanctions, the prophets of Judah were a reforming political force which has never been surpassed and perhaps never equaled in subsequent world history.”16

Turning to Jewish morality, Smith focuses on the four ethical precepts of the Ten Commandments:

  1. Thou shalt not murder.
  2. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  3. Thou shalt not steal.
  4. Thou shalt not bear false witness.

“What the Ten Commandments prescribe in these areas are the minimum standards that make collective life possible. In this sense the Ten Commandments are to the social order what the opening chapter of Genesis is to the natural order; without each there is only a formless void.”17 These four precepts are the basics — not only for Jews, but for all societies.

Smith says that the word “prophet” means “speak for.” The Hebrew prophets spoke for God, they were the mouthpieces of God. The prophets called for a just society, and insisted that an unjust society would come to grief.

Smith divides the prophets into three groups:

  1. The Prophetic Guilds, in which the individual is submerged in group emotion. “With the help of music and dancing, a prophetic band would work itself into a state of frenzy.”
  2. The Pre-Writing Prophets — individuals who emerged from the Prophetic Guilds. These prophets could be inspired in solitude, and their preaching wasn’t just frenzied emotion. Their names have come down to us (Smith mentions Elijah, etc.), but no books of the Bible bear their names since they were pre-writing. Smith tells how Elijah excoriated King Ahab to his face for his unjust treatment of Naboth, and Smith notes how unusual it is for a king to accept criticism, especially from a person with no official position.
  3. The Writing Prophets — Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc. These prophets aimed their criticism not at the specific acts of specific individuals, but at widespread injustices, institutionalized injustices. Like earlier prophets, the Writing Prophets were sometimes transported into ecstasy.

Smith says that the Writing Prophets shared “the conviction that every human being, simply by virtue of his or her humanity, is a child of God and therefore in possession of rights that even kings must respect.... Wherever men and women have gone to history for encouragement and inspiration in the age-long struggle for justice, they have found it more than anywhere else in the ringing proclamations of the prophets.”18 Were the Jews especially sensitive to injustice because, being a small nation, they had experienced injustice at the hands of powerful nations like the Egyptians?

Jews also found meaning in suffering. They interpreted their defeats as God’s punishments for their transgressions, or as God teaching them something. And what God taught them could be taught to all mankind: “God was burning into the hearts of the Jews through their suffering a passion for freedom and justice that would affect all humankind.

I have given you as a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.”19

The Jewish concept of a Messiah influenced, says Smith, the Western concept of progress. The worldview of Asian peoples was shaped by those in power, who were satisfied with how things were, so the concept of progress didn’t develop in China or India. But the Jews had little power, so they longed for change, for improvement. “They were an expectant people — a people who were waiting, if not to throw off the yoke of the oppressor, then to cross over into the promised land.”20 The Jews hoped for a Messiah who would bring political liberation, and also “a moral advance of worldwide proportions.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Jews had various ideas regarding the Messiah. Some expected an actual leader to appear, a king or priest; others expected that God would arrange things Himself. Some expected a return to an earlier state, an earlier golden age; others expected a utopia such as had never before existed. Some expected a gradual improvement of conditions; others expected that current conditions would be shattered by a kind of apocalypse, and a new world would be born.

Smith says that Jewish rituals made every aspect of life holy.

Jews are united more by what they do than by what they think. One evidence of this is that Jews have never promulgated an official creed that must be accepted to belong to this faith. Observance, on the other hand — the circumcision of males, for example — is decisive.... To speak of the hallowing of life in Judaism is to refer to its conviction that all life down to its smallest element can, if rightly approached, be seen as a reflection of the infinite source of holiness, which is God. The name for this right approach to life and the world is piety.21

Smith says that rituals help us get through difficult situations, like a relative’s death. Rituals also enhance happy times, such as weddings; rituals “raise joy to celebration.” A blessing before dinner “consecrates a daily pleasure.” “Jewish law sanctions all the good things of life — eating, marriage, children, nature, while elevating them all to holiness.... It teaches that people should be merry, that they should dance around the Torah.” Smith mentions a classic book on ritual, The Idea of the Holy, by the Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto.

Judaism emphasizes history and tradition. The importance of rituals is magnified by connecting them to history. “The most historically minded of all the religions, [Judaism] finds holiness and history inseparable.... Jews draw nourishment from events in which God’s acts were clearly visible.... ‘To live by the Law is to live within time the life of eternity.’”

Turning to the subject of revelation, Smith says that God revealed Himself to the Jews in the Exodus from Egypt. The Exodus made the Jews into a nation; Smith calls the Exodus “that incredible event in which God liberated an unorganized, enslaved people from the mightiest power of the age.”22 After the Exodus, the Jews reviewed their earlier history, and found evidence of God’s providence in Abraham’s journey from Sumeria to Canaan, and in other early events. Jews came to believe that God cared about them and loved them, and His love extended to all mankind. They came to believe that, at the time of the Exodus, God had entered into a covenant with them: follow my laws, and I will look after you. And they came to believe that God had entered into a covenant with Abraham, too: “If Abraham would be faithful to God’s will, God would not only give him a goodly land as inheritance but would cause his descendants to be numbered as the sands of the sea.”23

Having discussed revelation, Smith asks, Why did God reveal Himself to the Jews? Why were the Jews God’s chosen people? Smith says that the Jews believed God had chosen them, not for any special merit on their part, but from His own will.

In 70 AD, the Romans conquered Jerusalem, and destroyed the Second Temple (the First Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC). In 135 AD, Jews in Jerusalem revolted, but the revolt was put down, and the Romans forbade Jews from living in Jerusalem. The Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire (this dispersal was called the Diaspora). But even when dispersed, Jews longed for their ancient land, and prayed constantly for their return; “Next year in Jerusalem” was a common toast.

Since the priest couldn’t perform the sacrifice in the Temple, Judaism’s focus shifted to the study of the Torah in academies and synagogues (the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament; it’s also called the Pentateuch, or the Five Books of Moses). This study was led not by priests but by rabbis (rabbi = teacher). “Rabbinic Judaism grounded itself in the commandment to make the study of the Torah a lifelong endeavor, and Judaism acquired a distinctly intellectual dimension and character.... Study [became] a way of worship.... Interpretation was raised to the status of revelation.”24 Study focused not only on the Torah, but also on the Talmud, “a vast compendium of history, law, folklore, and commentary,” and on the midrashim, “an almost equal collection of legend, exegesis, and homily.”25

At the conclusion of his chapter on Judaism, Smith mentions three challenges faced by modern Jews:

  1. How can Jewish identity be preserved at a time when Jews are, in many ways, assimilated? In the old days of the ghetto, it was easy to preserve Jewish identity, but since the French Revolution, ghetto walls have fallen, and Jews have been integrated into society, making it more difficult to preserve Jewish identity.
  2. How can the concepts of a loving God and a chosen people be reconciled with the fact of the Holocaust?
  3. The Hebrew prophets helped to create Western ideals of freedom and justice, but how can these ideals be realized in modern Israel? “The tension between Palestinian national rights and Israeli security is acute and unresolved.”26

© L. James Hammond 2011
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Footnotes
1. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “1938” back
2. Before the Sabbath, 1/6/75 back
3. May 9, 2011 back
4. “Men Not at Work: Social problems are unlikely to be solved with carrots alone,” by Jim Prevor, May 11, 2011 back
5. p. 274, quoting Henri Frankfort back
6. p. 275 back
7. p. 275 back
8. p. 275 back
9. Christianity carried these tendencies further than Judaism did, viewing God as more benevolent than the early Hebrews did, and preaching love-of-neighbor more than Judaism did. back
10. p. 279 back
11. p. 280 back
12. But the translators shied away from this expression, and the King James Version says, “a little lower than the angels.” back
13. p. 283 back
14. p. 283 back
15. pp. 285, 286 back
16. p. 286, quoting W. F. Albright back
17. p. 287 back
18. pp. 292, 293 back
19. p. 295 back
20. p. 296 back
21. pp. 300, 301 back
22. p. 304 back
23. p. 306 back
24. p. 311 back
25. p. 313 back
26. p. 315 back