Recently, I learned that an asteroid named Apophis, about 1,000 feet long (2.5 football fields), is scheduled to pass disconcertingly close to Earth on April 13, 2029. That’s a Friday, in case you were wondering. If the name “Apophis” sounds like it conjures images of doom, that’s because it is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Apep. In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the god of darkness, evil, and disorder, and was known as the enemy of Ra (the sun god). Apep was thought to assume the form of a formidable serpent, who attempts to swallow Ra each night as the sun makes his nightly passage through the Earth’s middle. Each night, the god Set was the primary defender of Ra, consistently keeping Apep at bay. This is what NASA’s Near Earth Orbit program has to say, on a page entitled “Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036”:

“The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravity field. This is within the distance of Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth’s equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region. Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).” http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/

Bottom line: Apophis is coming close enough in 2029 to pass inside some of our satellites, but highly-refined projections based on a myriad of factors indicate that the possibility of impact with Earth does not exist at that time. It will return on April 13, 2036, with a chance of impact that NASA says is 1 in 250,000. Those odds are calculated based on the chances of Apophis flying through a gravitational “keyhole” during the 2029 pass. The keyhole refers to a narrow, specific area in space in which Earth’s gravitational field would alter the path of Apophis’ future orbit — if it passes through that specific area in 2029. NASA estimates the keyhole odds to be 1 in 250,000; but if it does go through the keyhole, it will slam into us in 2036 unless space agencies can implement one of the theoretical ways to deflect it. The good news is that Apophis is coming into range to be extensively analyzed by both optical telescopes and radar from Arecibo in late 2012-early 2013. At that time, much uncertainty about its future chances will likely be eliminated.

If Apophis were to strike, it would cause major devastation around the general area of impact, but NASA assures us that it is not large enough to wreak global catastrophe (of course, one wonders if NASA is taking into account the global effects of crop destruction). But in Earth’s history, there have been at least a few asteroids that did cause catastrophe on a global scale. The best known is the “K-T asteroid,” its name indicating the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods — the Cretaceous was the end of the dinosaurs, and we are living in the Tertiary. Its 12-mile crater was discovered beneath the sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. The K-T asteroid was 6 miles long and eradicated 70% of Earth’s life — due to the initial impact and everything it incinerated, the shock wave, the tsunami, the global fires, the effects of debris in the atmosphere (including complete darkness for roughly 6 months), the acid rain, and the subsequent global temperature drop.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how every natural global catastrophe that we know about in the history of the Earth, while leading to widespread destruction for many contemporaneous species, ended up creating the conditions for other species to emerge, changing the face of global life over and over again. This was certainly the case with the K-T asteroid; before it hit and spelled the eventual end for most dinosaurs (the remaining ones becoming the ancestors of birds), mammals could not have gained a foothold. At the time before the asteroid, mammals were a meek group of small creatures no bigger than rodents; they were dinosaur snacks, and snacks for other large predators. When the effects of the asteroid made life so difficult for large land species that they went extinct, the small mammals had the free rein to thrive, evolve, and eventually lead to the life we see today, including us. Hard as it may be to believe, we are distant descendants of those tiny, industrious mammals that were only able to thrive when the dinosaurs were gone.

As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of life; we take it for granted that we should keep multiplying ourselves upon the Earth unchecked. If our explosive population growth and the consequent tendency to destroy large swaths of other species’ habitats cause harm, then that harm is ultimately acceptable — because, after all, we’re humans.  Often, religious people tend to think that God instituted us to assume this position, and therefore we have license to do whatever we think is necessary to continue our explosion over the face of the planet; if that means a mind-boggling consumption rate of finite planetary resources, as well as the eradication of species that have been here for millennia, then so be it. We belong here, says this mentality, and the Earth belongs to us. God wants it that way.

But Genesis doesn’t just say “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). It also says that humans will rule (radah) over the Earth. This concept does not simply signify “dominion” in the English connotation, which so often is linked only with subjugation. It carries more of a sense of “sovereignty,” which, in biblical thought, included an ideal of wise stewardship. Have we managed our effect on the planet with wise stewardship? I think the answer to that is obvious. Our main concern is ourselves; everything else is several hundred miles down on the priority list.

For a species that is so intelligent, it isn’t particularly intelligent to think that ignoring our effect on the planet and its ecosystems will have no negative consequences for humans  (and I’m not just talking about climate change — don’t forget resource depletion). The planet itself has endured for billions of years and is oblivious to us; it is the life forms upon it that come and go for one reason or another. If any sequence of events leads to the eventual extinction of humans, the planet will still keep orbiting the Sun, and whatever life forms survive will adapt and give rise to new life forms. Just as life has always done on this planet. The sad part of that is having to admit that as of now, the planet’s ecosystems would be far better off without us. We are an incredibly destructive species. We abuse our adaptability and intelligence to act with little regard for species other than our own — this despite a professed belief on the part of most of us that God had a hand in the creation of those other species. Other species occupy only their own niches, without our ability to drive others to extinction, deplete resources, and literally change the surface of the planet. Since we do have those abilities, it becomes our responsibility to control them.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

He Who Lives By The Sword

Of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Dalai Lama, always the voice of ultimate compassion, said that while bin Laden might have deserved forgiveness as a human being, “forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened…. If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” The Vatican, expressing what was likely a similar sentiment, noted that bin Laden was responsible for the destruction of countless lives, spreading division and hatred, and manipulating religions to that end. The statement concluded: “In the face of a person’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before humanity, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” Explicit in this statement is the lack of condemnation of the manner of bin Laden’s death. These statements from these respective religious leaders are striking, because both the Dalai Lama and the Vatican can usually be expected to make statements affirming life in all forms and disapproving of actions that lead to another’s death.

In the last several days, religious people of different traditions have struggled with conflicting responses within themselves to the news, and have sought whether their responses are in accordance with their faith. Thousands of people Sunday night rushed the streets, cheered, waved flags, sang, and chanted “USA!” Reactions against this jubilation have come from some quarters since, declaring it uncivilized or ignorant. Others refrain from judging that jubilation, but express concern that we should not celebrate or feel satisfaction at the killing of even someone as heinous as bin Laden, even though we are all better off with him out of commission, and even though he received every bit the justice he deserved.

But I think the tempered responses of the Dalai Lama and the Vatican speak to the reality that even if we know our noblest selves might refrain from taking satisfaction from this event, this was a man who, together with his associates, murdered innocent people. And not just our people, but many others across the globe, including Muslims. This was a man who spread hate like a bacterium. He needed to be dispatched from this world for a functional reason – that is, so that he could no longer plot murders and motivate new followers with his charismatic presence. But on a more emotional level, we do feel gladness that he was taken down, and taken down by one of our own warriors. Surely his followers do not see this as our victory, but that is irrelevant to the emotional release of a nation whose citizens were murdered merely because they went to work one day 10 years ago, or boarded a plane that one day — a nation whose psyche and daily reality were suddenly and permanently changed by the act of savagery that was 9/11.

From a Christian perspective, the New Testament teaches that we do best when we emulate Christ, who exhorts us to be peaceful, longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving, non-violent, and non-vengeful. The central message of Christ’s journey to the Cross, after all, was his willing endurance of a grave injustice and grave suffering when he was innocent of any wrongdoing, thus revealing God’s solidarity with suffering, and the glorification that ensued. But even the New Testament – even some of the words attributed to Jesus – recognize that we are still living in a broken world that harbors both chaos and evil, and people who choose evil. We strive toward the divine world, but it is still “not yet.” Sometimes, in this world, we are left with no realistic choice besides what happened Sunday night. Bin Laden chose his fate years ago, and went into it with eyes wide open. As the Vatican spokesman noted, we all bear a responsibility before God, and bin Laden reaped what he sowed.

Jesus did teach and demonstrate love, compassion, and forgiveness. But the New Testament also observes that  “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” As humans, we should reflect soberly and sadly on the chain of events that led here, and that stretches back more than a decade. There is an Old Testament scripture that states, “Vengeance is mine – so says the Lord.” So it is. And we will leave such matters in his hands.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

A Human Identity

Whenever I tell anyone that my work involves the study of the Old Testament within its context of ancient Israel and the Near East, this is the question that often follows: “Oh, are you Jewish?” Or, the occasional bewildered variation: “But you’re not Jewish, are you?” When I inevitably answer “no” to these questions, the follow-up is usually: “That’s so interesting — then what made you want to do that?” My answer  typically goes somewhere along these lines: “I’ve always loved history, particularly ancient history, and I’ve always been very interested in religion. As a Christian, I was already exposed to the Old Testament, so the combination of the ancient history and religion was a natural thing for me.”

I often wondered about the source of the query as to whether I am Jewish, and of the follow-up question to figure out why I am so interested. The assumption seems to be that if I’m so interested in the Old Testament and the Hebrew language, I am probably Jewish. I think that the source of these questions speaks to the matter of individual and cultural identity, and what causes us as humans to claim certain identities for ourselves; how we view the identities of others; how we define what constitutes “my” identity, and the identities of those who are “not-me.” This does not necessarily mean that we look with fear or condescension on the identities of “not-me,” but simply that we are aware of the distinction, whether that awareness is accepting, non-accepting, or neutral.

The identities at hand are cultural and religious identities. These are often, but not always, linked. In the modern world we see much more frequent breakage of that link than was the norm in the ancient world. In that world, your culture contained your religion, as it did for your neighbors, and that was that. If you were Egyptian you worshiped the Egyptian gods and practiced the appropriate prayers and rituals; if you were Sumerian, the Sumerian ones; if Babylonian or Assyrian, then those respective pantheons (though these often contained similar or the same deities and rituals going by different names). The same rule was true for the collection of small countries and peoples often termed “Canaanites.”

This is not to say that people did not move from one place to another, or that cosmopolitan centers did not contain foreigners passing through or sojourning. But for the most part, if you were born in a certain place, your religion was the religion of that place. Conversion did not begin to happen on a grand scale until the growth of the Christian religion; this caused problems for many families in the Greek-speaking world when one of their members left the family identity by converting to another religion.

But what determines identity for us humans? Not just religious identity, but any identity? What makes us decide to stay within an identity and consciously operate within it, defining ourselves within it, taking pride in it? Or to cross over into another identity? How much of our former identity do we keep? If one is of Italian heritage, one is likely to have been raised Catholic, but one can choose either to commit to or change that identity. If one lives in Asia, there is a good possibility one may be Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian; if southeast Asia, Buddhist but also Hindu or Muslim. And so on. A person can decide to leave any of these identities and adopt another one, and sometimes not only a religious change but a change of culture as well. Or that person can choose to adopt wholeheartedly and thrive in the identity to which (s)he was born, accepting this as a given fact. In America, which has a culture that is formed from the co-existence of many subcultures with immigrant heritage, these lines can be especially permeable.

Still, the lines do exist. People may cross over cultural or religious identities, but the concept of one’s identity — as distinct from some other identity — will likely always exist. People can contain more than one cultural or religious identity within themselves, of course, especially in a country like the United States. But if one’s sense of identity becomes too dominant, then conflict with others and even war on a national scale can occur, as history and experience consistently show us. But without a sense of identity, we feel rudderless, a lack of belonging, and a longing to belong to some smaller subgroup within humanity. What would happen if we all only identified ourselves as human, as individual members of a vast human family? Would that ever happen, or is our desire for the existence of a smaller group to which to belong, a smaller and more well-defined identity than simply “human,” too strong?

I think that such a desire is too powerful ever to leave the human psyche. We crave some level of distinctiveness, something that makes us “us.” But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It becomes a bad thing only when one’s sense of identity becomes so fundamental that one becomes inclined to fight, scorn, or avoid others simply because they have a different identity from one’s own. “I am a [insert any kind of identity here] and therefore am above you.” The ideal state of being for all our desire for our own identity, for all our desire to belong to a smaller group within the category “human,” should be that we own our identities and thrive within them while dwelling alongside those who claim a different identity. Dwelling with respect, love, and regard for fellow humanity.

The Old Testament contains a story of a woman who left her old identity and adopted a new. Her choice was that the people to whom her late husband belonged — the Israelites — were more important to her than the Moabite culture that was native to herself. So after her Israelite husband died, the woman Ruth returned to her husband’s people with her beloved mother-in-law Naomi and chose an Israelite man named Boaz. When Naomi had initially urged Ruth to return to her own people the Moabites and to their gods, Ruth had pledged to her this famous vow: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s name seems to derive from the Hebrew word for (female) “friend.” This story also marks her as a direct ancestor of King David. Although the book of Ruth contains far more complicated elements than I’ve mentioned here, one of its primary elements speaks to the importance of friendship and love over all else.

Our identities are often, and often should be, very important to us. But I think we only better ourselves as people if we choose to give pride of place to love — love for all those who, just by existing, share with us our most basic identity: human.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Chi Rho

Chi rho — with the “ch” in chi pronounced as it is in “Bach” — are the Greek letters that have served as the sign for “Christ” since the early years of Christianity. They are the first two letters in the Greek “Christos,” and they look like an English x and p, respectively. But who or what is the entity the Chi Rho stands for? Christian understanding of Christ’s nature has never been a straightforward road — nor should we expect it to have been, given the depth of the issues that become apparent as soon as one looks even a little closely.

The area of theology that deals with the nature of Christ is called Christology, and the christological disagreements (some more major than others) that existed right from the inception of Christianity are so numerous that it is impossible to raise them all here. The primary disagreements surrounded the question of whether Christ was fully God incarnate with only the outward appearance of humanity; whether he was God incarnate with both true divine and true human natures in the same body; or whether he was a subordinate, semi-human semi-deity whom God created and endowed with special attributes. It fell to two main Ecumenical Councils to hash out these questions: first Nicea and then, to address further christological questions that followed from the Nicean decision, Chalcedon.

In the year 325 Emperor Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity, wearied of all the arguing and called the Council of Nicea to work it all out, hoping that everyone would then quiet down and be satisfied. The council, drawing on years of theological work, determined that Christ was of “same substance” (homoousios) with the Creator, rather than “like substance” (homoiousios). Both views had many advocates, and these advocates themselves differed with respect to the details of Christ’s nature, and how Christ would thus relate to the Creator. The strongest defender of the Nicean “one substance” view at that time was Athanasius, while the strongest proponent for the “like substance” view was Arius.

Though it may sound trivial and overly speculative to the point of meaninglessness, the “substance” debate gets to the heart of the identity of the Creator and the role of Christ, which in turn is a matter at the heart of Christianity. The “high Christology” of John’s Gospel contributed to the co-identification of Christ’s nature with the Creator, particularly John 1 with its statement that all things were created through the Word (Logos: reason, word, logic) that then came down and became flesh among us in Christ. Other statements in John that are attributed to Christ, such as “I and the Father are one,” also contributed to the Nicean understanding. Other words and actions of Christ, however, particularly in the other Gospels, give a strong impression of Christ’s true humanity: Jesus prays to God, gets hungry and thirsty, weeps, feels physical pain, and experiences the desire to be alone and to remove himself for a time from the throngs. These facts contributed to the Arian view that Christ was not of one nature with the Creator but rather a subordinate, created being who at some point became endowed by God with suprahuman characteristics and purposes. In the Arian view, Christ did not eternally exist with God before time; in the Nicean view, since Christ is a same-substance manifestation of God (a hypostasis), he did eternally exist with God before time.

The attraction of the Arian view is immediately apparent. It contains no paradoxes and no mind-bending issues involving the relationship between God and Christ as co-equal Persons sharing one substance. (And this is not even to raise the matter of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity!). The Arian view at first glance is simpler and more common-sense to us. And it certainly resolves the question of how Jesus could have been praying to God if he had any divine nature. But it does not take into account major statements in John’s Gospel, such as those mentioned above. Now from a strict historian’s perspective, this is no problem at all: the different portrayals of Christ simply illustrate different understandings of Christ among early Christians who wrote the New Testament. This is well and good and no doubt accurate. But from the perspective of a Christian theologian or laity, how these different portrayals coalesce to form an overarching image of Christ matters a great deal. To the theologian or laity, the ultimate nature of who Christ was or is becomes a central matter. The New Testament portrayals of Christ are the basic documents such a person has to construct his or her own answer to the question: “Who was this man?”

Where the Arian view runs into real difficulty is the question of human salvation through redemption from sin and the consequent assurance of eternal life. The Gospels and many epistles in the New Testament (from Paul and otherwise) identify these things as wrapped up in Christ’s purpose on Earth, to one or another degree of emphasis depending on the text. How is Christ’s birth, suffering, death, and resurrection redemptive or salvific on a global and eternal scale if he is only human? Or even if he is semi-divine, adopted in some special way by God to perform an extraordinary purpose? How is his life redemptive and salvific for the human species for all time if he is anything less than fully divine? No entity, it was argued, who is not God could accomplish — could have the right to accomplish — such a feat. When followed through to its end, the Arian view seemed to raise more problems and inconsistencies than it solved. So Nicea determined that Christ was of one substance with God: he became fully incarnate as a human, but he was the Word, the Logos, who from the beginning was begotten from the Creator and not made.

But christological analysis did not end at Nicea. After that council, people continued to examine the further consequences of the Nicean decision. If Christ was of one nature with the Creator, how could he have been praying to that Creator in the Gospels? Would he not then have been praying to himself? If he was of one nature with the Creator, how did he appear genuinely to feel most of the things that humans feel, both physically and emotionally? The danger of glossing over these human traits became apparent as an unintended consequence of Nicea. A school of thought gained strength in Antioch that did not deny Christ’s divine nature, but most emphasized his human nature and the importance of clearly distinguishing the two Persons, the Creator and the Christ, even if one allowed that they shared the same substance. The Antiochene school sought to avert any simple blurring of the Christ and the Creator that failed to note any distinction between the two. On the other hand, Alexandria, a competing theological center, produced some theologians who emphasized Christ’s divine nature almost at the expense of his human one (sometimes inadvertently so). A growing group that came to be known as Monophysites (from “one nature/body”) asserted that Christ had only one true nature — that of God. At most, the divine Logos took up residence in Jesus’ human flesh, but the two were not inherently connected or inseparable in the person of Jesus.

The Council of Chalcedon of 451 was convened to form a definitive position on these christological issues, and to answer the Monophysite contention that Christ had only one nature. Chalcedon re-affirmed Nicea but went further in detail, asserting that Christ indeed had two natures, one divine and one human, and that each of these natures was “full.” That is, neither the divine nor the human nature in Christ was adulterated or incomplete; both cohered together in his Person. The natures were not commingled — Christ was not some divine-human hybrid or demigod. Each nature existed in itself, full on its own, not watered down — yet in his Person completely inseparable, indivisible, inextricable. Christ would not be Christ without the divine nature, and Christ would not be Christ without the human nature. Thus the Second Person of the Trinity became Jesus Christ at the incarnation, within a woman of ordinary rank, in a tiny and powerless country that had been subsumed into the Roman Empire. Before this incarnation, the same Word was still the Second Person of the Trinity, and had eternally been so.

The Nicean and Chalcedonian formulations allow both for the necessity of Christ’s fully divine nature in his redemptive activity, and for his clearly human traits. The christology put forth by these councils contended that in one man dwelt God-nature and human-nature each full in itself, yet in that man inseparable from one another. This, it was determined, is the entity behind the Chi Rho.

What does all this matter to a Christian going about his or her life, trying to live by Christ’s admonishment that the two greatest Commandments are to love God and love your neighbor? Perhaps, not much. Certainly, not every Christian embraces the christology of Nicea and Chalcedon. But perhaps, we could take more seriously the divine mandate to honor, respect, and love one another if we saw in our own species the potential that our Creator has always seen.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010


* For a comprehensive but clearly-written overview of the major developments in historical theology, I recommend to interested readers A Short History of Christian Doctrine by Bernhard Lohse, translated by F. Ernest Stoeffler.

Of Metaphor, Imagination, and Shrines

Over the last week I have continued to think about the ways that Zen philosophy, particularly as expressed through the “dry landscape” or karesansui garden, can enrich my own spiritual practice. I am struck and delighted by the heavy involvement of metaphor and symbol, which serve a meditative purpose in Zen gardens. Not all Zen gardens are “dry” rock gardens — some include pools of water or tiny waterfalls — but especially in the dry garden, the use of symbolic representation reigns supreme. The structure of Japanese gardens is not intended to replicate nature with pure realism, but to create a self-contained, imaginary world where the components of the garden represent things beyond themselves. A rock or compilation of rocks can stand for a mountain, an island on the sea, or an outcropping on that sea; alternatively it could symbolize a stone in a river. A bushy or round plant can represent a mountain or a green hill, and even one tall, slender, or leafy plant can symbolize an entire forest. An assortment of plants close together can form the backdrop of a metaphorical landscape, creating the impression of distant hills and forests.Rock garden

In a karesansui, the water of the “sea,” “lake,” or “river” is represented by gravel, and can either seem like a still pool, or be stylistically raked or arranged to evoke thoughts of water’s movement. Gravel can easily represent a vast, active ocean; for this effect the garden’s size need not be large at all, since the world of the garden is not realistic reproduction but imagination. The scale of the garden’s interrelated contents is more instrumental in creating the desired impression than the size of the garden itself. In my own dry garden, the light gravel represents the sea, the flat stones are low islands on the sea, and the black hematite formations are taller “rocky outcroppings” standing above the water. The plants form a backdrop landscape. They could communicate mountains and forests; or perhaps their juxtaposition with the rocks could simply suggest a desert landscape, with no water imagined at all. These gardens have such a heavy use of imaginative representation in order to give the mind a dedicated, free space in which to think about the world-scape that the garden stands for. This is a meditative act that feeds the mind.

All of this leads me to think about a few ways that American Christian worship could, in my view, renew itself. In Japan the landscape is dotted with small shrines, to which individuals may go for a few minutes on their own time to light incense, say a prayer, meditate, or simply feel in communion with that which is beyond oneself. The Catholic and Orthodox areas of Europe are also rich with shrines, as is Latin America; many of these involve saints as avenues to the worship of God. Protestantism, however, which represents just under one-half of United States religious practice, is lacking this, since Protestant theology resists such small shrines either outdoors or in the private home. Therefore, what Christian shrines America does have tend to be Catholic (and Orthodox to a lesser extent, since there are far more American Catholics than American Orthodox). These are very attractive in a spiritual sense, and this is true whether such shrines are public or private. It is a personal, active, “anytime” experience to visit a shrine.

These are a few thoughts from one who takes delight from a rock garden, from lighting candles, and from being in a place and hearing nothing but the wind and the birds outside.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010


*For an excellent and readable resource on Zen gardens, see Zen Gardens by Erik Borja.

Two Streams of Water

A few days ago, I set up the Japanese rock garden (or Zen garden), also known as dry garden (karesansui) that I mentioned in my last post. Here you will see two small pictures; each represents a different iteration of the rock garden. I ultimately settled on what is represented in the second picture, after having for a while what is represented in the first picture. Both are valid examples of how a rock garden can be arranged. The light gravel, raked to represent the rippling effect of water, represents the ocean; the large rocks stand for large islands rising from the sea; the background represents the land. The red rocks in the first picture indicate land, while the cacti and aloe represent various flora.

This morning I sat down on the couch with my coffee in front of it, watching the gold of the morning sun’s rays flood the window, listening to the scores of birds that arrive around our house every spring morning. These birds, in these quantities, are here for spring and summer only, so their presence is temporary. And the side of the house that harbors this window gets that strong sunlight only in the early morning, so the presence of those exuberant rays is even more temporary — at least until the next morning, provided it is a sunny one. The temporary nature of both the flocking birds and the full sunlight means that if they are not enjoyed now, in the very moment, you miss them. There is no taking them for granted.

Knowing this, I decided I would do nothing but sit in my spot, drink my coffee, and look at my karesansui and the trees outside my window. It was surprisingly difficult just to sit there and do that and nothing else — even with my knowledge that that full sunlight was very fleeting, and the flocking birds at their morning feeding almost equally so.

It occurred to me as I looked at my garden that that is one of the core lessons of Zen philosophy, core lessons of which I had hoped to remind myself by building the garden in the first place. Mindfulness, awareness, appreciation. Mindfulness is the act of being “mindful” of whatever it is you are doing, of truly living in the moment by paying attention to that moment rather than rushing past it. Driving somewhere, for example; enjoy the drive itself rather than merely trying to rush to your destination as expediently as possible. That drive is part of your life that you will never get back: enjoy it as much as you can. Or even if it is something we don’t think of ourselves as relishing — such as doing dishes, which is a famous example for this philosophy — we can savor our lives that much more if we simply focus our minds on the very thing we are doing. This in itself is a meditative act that creates both peace and enhanced enjoyment of life with hardly any effort at all. How often do we whittle our lives away by not living in each moment, by rushing ahead, by constantly thinking of something else? By constantly feeling — even in the times when it is not necessary — that we need to be doing something, to be distracted, to be “busy.”

Though I am a Christian, I keep a marble-dust representation of the Buddha near my rock garden  — not because I revere the Buddha in any extraordinary way, but to remind me of some of the more salient and helpful aspects of that philosophy, which are really not incompatible with Christianity. Mindfulness. Acceptance. Compassion. Living in the very present. Appreciating small, everyday things as the fundamental things of life. Creating and maintaining a peaceful, uncluttered space for the mind. Training one’s mind to be calm at its core even in the face of adversity. Living honorably and with integrity, creating no intentional harm against others, keeping Love and Compassion as one’s highest aims. All of these things Christianity and Buddhism can share in common, but only some of these do Christians actively emphasize on a regular basis. I contend that Christians could benefit in their own practice by more actively stressing some of those tenets of Buddhist philosophy discussed above. Zen practice, in particular, is especially adaptable for Christians.

Two representative aphorisms from the Dhammapada, the foundational Buddhist text, illustrate such confluence very well:

“In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the Law, ancient and inexhaustible.”

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them? Are you a shepherd who counts another man’s sheep, never sharing the way? Read as few words as you like and speak fewer. But act upon the Law. Give up the old ways — passion, enmity, folly. Know the truth and find peace. Share the way.”

And what reader of the Bible would not recognize the similarity of this aphorism to the style and content of Proverbs?

“Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”

The lifting of a few quotes from an entire work cannot possibly encapsulate the whole, and that’s not my intention. This is as true of the Bible as it is of the Dhammapada. But it can illustrate that two distinct streams of water, remaining distinct, can still flow down the mountain in tandem with one another.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Tangibility of the Intangible

This week I plan on crafting a miniature, indoor Japanese rock garden (karesansui) in a low wooden or bamboo box, to be placed on our bow window. A Japanese rock garden is sometimes also called a Zen dry garden due to its deep connection with Zen Buddhism. A rock garden, or karesansui, is a “dry landscape” garden; it employs no actual water, but the rocks, moss, and small shrubs that can constitute the garden are often arranged in a way that evokes thoughts of streams, mountains, hills, and even forests. Despite the fact that the arrangement of stones and small plants can create the illusion of water, a primary characteristic of these gardens is their sense of stillness.

My husband is an aficionado of Japanese culture; I am glad for this, because if he were not, I would never have been introduced to the robust appreciation of clean-lined tranquility that is Japanese aesthetics. Walk into any classically Japanese structure, such as a traditionally-appointed Japanese restaurant, and your mind will feel almost instantly at ease. The aesthetic usually involves light neutral color tones, tastefully limited and unobtrusive decor, and stunningly clean lines for everything. The absence of clutter, of haphazardness, of “too much” is felt immediately in the calming effect such an aesthetic has on the mind. With one’s space so calm, smooth and free-flowing, so uncluttered, how can one feel tense? It is as if when the body enters such an open space physically, the mind also enters an open space — one that does not impose upon it but rather invites it to relax in freedom.

This clean and simple aesthetic is also very conducive to thinking and to meditating, for obvious reasons. The same holds true for the rock garden. Its smoothness and stillness, punctuated by just the right amount of components, put our minds at ease and elevate them somehow. Something in the nature of these tangible things, of that tangible space, allows us to make contact with something intangible in which our minds delight. This is true not just of structures and spaces, of course. Jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as we know quite well not only from things like ancient Egyptian murals, but also from ancient jewelry itself, lifted from the ground by archaeologists or treasure hunters.

Many of us feel emotional connections to some of our jewelry; many of us wear certain articles because the design or the material makes us think of something, or is a symbol of something important to us. This is especially true of religious or spiritually-oriented jewelry. How many of us wear Stars of David, mezuzah pendants, crosses, crucifixes, Buddha pendants, yin/yang circles, Qur’an pendants, or even mineral rocks from the earth, because their tangibility links us to the intangible things they represent?

The same is true for other physical art — the David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peter’s basilica (all right, I’m betraying a Michelangelo bias here), Buddhist temples, Monet’s paintings, the intricate aniconic designs of Muslim art, the bimah of Jewish synagogues. The rich statuary of most Catholic churches reflects the Catholic theology that it is not to the statue that a worshiper prays, and it is not the statue that has any power: the statue is a tangible symbol of the spiritual figure it represents.

The ancient world too, as I mentioned in another post, was rich with statues and figurines of the gods and various other religious artifacts. In ancient Mesopotamia, the statues of the gods were their physical vectors on Earth; when a statue was created and commissioned, its inauguration consisted of the ceremonies mish pi and pit pi — “washing of the mouth” and “opening of the mouth.” When these ceremonies were complete, the deity’s physical representation became formal and suitable for that deity.

All of these things, I think, are examples of the inextricable link between the tangible and the intangible. The tangibility of the Zen rock garden or the Japanese room, or some element within nature, directs our minds to something intangible and produces a feeling or a state of being. The tangibility of personal jewelry — which we often touch or hold in a moment of worry or gratitude or even just contemplation — connects us to the intangibility of what it represents. The tangibility of physical art — whether painted, drawn, sculpted, constructed, or written — touches us on a deep level, and can even transport us to some other world or some larger awareness. The tangibility of a religious statue serves as a vector for the reality beyond. For those of us who believe in an intangible soul that survives the body, the body is the tangible home of that soul in this world.

The tangible and the intangible of this cosmos, while so often thought of as separate and fundamentally different, in fact seem linked in deep and inextricable ways. I will think of this as I look at my Zen rock garden this week, and allow its tangible nature to point my mind to the intangible peace it represents.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010