Ethics in Hindu Epics

Dr. Arvind Sharma is a leading scholar of Religious Studies. Follow the link to read his brief tract arguing that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata’s approach to the good leans more towards deontology and consequentialism, respectively.

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Don’t Quote Me on This

As a public service, I share with you this NY Times op-ed by Brian Morton. Now, please emend as needed all second-hand proclamations and attributions. Misquotations that push a scrubbed-down, feel-good message miss the point of truly complex or truly good ideas. Not long ago I attended a lecture by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi. Not only did the flyers for the lecture have printed on them the misguided, and misquoted, statement, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” but when asked by a young boy in the audience what his favorite Gandhi saying is, Arun himself reiterated it. I hope this drives home the importance of consulting primary sources.

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Writing Workshop: Writing a Thesis Statement for Philosophy Papers

“The crux of a philosophical argument often appears to be a Dedekind cut between a series of ‘as I will show’s and a series of ‘as I have shown’s. In a sense the preliminaries are the argument, and there is no crux apart from their perspicuous deployment. A few more introductory remarks, therefore, and my job will be done” (Wilfrid Sellars, Science and Metaphysics, qtd. in Rosenberg iii).

Aim: To develop the skill of writing a thesis statement for argumentative philosophical essays and to introduce a process approach to writing.

Audience: Students of philosophy; preferably first-year students.

Activity: Practice writing a thesis statement using the A-B-C method.

Breakdown: Introduction (5 min.)

Writing Process:

Writing for a philosophy course can seem an interminable task when facing an essay as a single event—an obstacle you try to hurdle without taking a running start. To lessen the degree of difficulty when writing a philosophical essay where you have to make and defend an argument or position, consider approaching the essay as a process—that is, allow for a distance between you and your finished writing piece.

Approaching the Essay (10 min.)

First Part of Writing:

To begin, when writing an essay for philosophy you are usually not starting from a position of zero prior knowledge. Within the philosophy course you will be assigned readings of primary sources, and it is from these that essay prompts are derived and argumentative papers are built. Often, these readings are dense and challenging. The “great works” of philosophy are not texts to be read through like you would a novel; rather, they are works to be read deeply into, taken apart, and analyzed (not to say you cannot do this with a novel).

For many students of philosophy, the point a philosopher is trying to get across may not be so clear upon first, or even second, read. To ease your way into a philosophical text and truly develop an understanding, try giving the text a preliminary read-through, marking-up the text as you go, highlighting and annotating sections of particular confusion or clarity or interest, etc. After this preliminary read you should be able to identify the central claim of the philosopher; if not, revisit your marginalia. Then free-write on what you have been able to glean from the text. Once you have done this, reread the text, this time taking more care to understand exactly what is at issue, define key terms, expound on arguments, etc. By taking this read-write-read approach to understanding a text, you place yourself in a position of intellectual engagement with the text and awareness of the philosopher’s position (Cf. Elbow 12).

The Foundation of the Essay (10 min.)

Thesis Statements:

Now that you have read the text, you can begin to write an argumentative paper in response to it. The crux of your paper will be your thesis statement, a clear, specific, and arguable point generated from the reading. Your thesis statement will be a constricting and structuring force in your essay; so the clearer and more specific it is, the clearer and more specific your essay will be.

Sample Thesis:

(A) In On the Division of Nature, Eriugena discusses the possibility of ascribing characteristics to God. (B) Although Eriugena refers to God in the positive, I hold he does so only metaphorically to explain how referring to God in any other way is non-indicative. Since nothing can be said literally about God, I argue that nothing at all should be said because such discussion is technically and strictly meaningless. (C) Thus, attempts at understanding God through language are futile.

Writing a Thesis (refer to sample thesis):

(A). Present your topic: What are you writing about? Clearly state the author and text which your essay concerns and the ideas on which you will focus.

(B). Develop a claim: What is your take on the work? Formulate an arguable claim about the topic, which you will analyze throughout the body of your essay.

(C). Address the audience: Why is what your writing relevant, that is, why should your audience take your essay as having significance in the real-world? Pique the interest of your audience with a connection to the practical application(s) or implication(s) of your theory.

Application (15 min.)

Class Thesis Writing Activity

Topic: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Book 1:1-2.

Prompt: What is “the good”?

Following the A-B-C method, students take five minutes to write a thesis statement. Breaking up into groups of two, students review each other’s thesis statements, checking off each portion of the thesis (A, B, and C) and providing feedback, especially on B and C (Duranczyk and Lee, par. 4-5).

Concluding Remarks (5 min.)

Open discussion:

Was this an effective approach to writing their thesis statements? Can they see the method of reading, writing, and rereading as a plausible approach to their own writing? How might they incorporate a process to their writing in the future, whether it be this, as outlined, or another?


Writing A Philosophy Essay

When reading a philosopher, consider the following as a backdrop on which to build your original thesis claim:

1.   What are the philosopher’s conclusions?

– Be able to indicate the philosopher’s theses, what it is (s)he is arguing for.

2.   What are the arguments?

– Follow the reasoning and logic of the philosopher by indicating premises from which (s)he draws conclusions; be exegetical in your reading; once you understand what it is the philosopher is arguing and how (s)he argues for it, you can begin to analyze the text critically.

3.   What is the philosopher’s “dialectical setting”?

– Here, an understanding of the history of philosophy is useful. Be able to place the philosopher, and her or his philosophy, within the context of history. Out of what school of philosophy is (s)he emerging; is (s)he founding a new one; what are the views of his or her predecessors, contemporaries, and followers? These are all questions to consider even from a limited approach, where your essay will focus on a particular philosopher and a particular work because it heightens your understanding of 1 and 2. If you are approaching your essay from a holistic view, consider not only those questions, but also relevant and pervading views from other disciplines (e.g. psychology, mathematics, etc.), in so doing, you will be able to integrate perceivable arguments for or against the philosopher’s claims as well as your own. In essence, your essay will be stronger if you can substantiate your claims with common sense where common sense is most appropriate, and technical knowledge where technical knowledge is appropriate (Gunter, 29-30).

(Adapted from Rosenberg 110-111).

Following your reading, draw on your interests to develop a thesis that satisfies A (a presentation of your topic), B (a statement of what you intend to argue), and C (a connection to broader themes).

Works Cited

Duranczyk, Irene M. and Amy Lee. “Process Pedagogy, Engaging Mathematics.” Academic Exchange Quarterly. 15 March 2009. <;.

Elbow, Peter. “Writing First!.” Educational Leadership 62.2 (Oct. 2004): 8-13. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Giovale Lib., Salt Lake City, UT. 15 Mar. 2009 <;.

Gunter, Pete A.Y. “Coherence Lost.” Humanist 55 (1995): 25-30, 6. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Giovale Lib., Salt Lake City, UT. 15 Mar. 2009 <;.

Rosenberg, Jay F. The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.

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The [Agri]Culture of Ignorance: How Our Current Agricultural Practices Will Cause the Collapse of Ecological Life-Systems

(For a notable scholar’s account of environmental sustainability, see my post Destroying the Commons.)

Under the United States’ current system of agriculture, many key elements of sustained ecological functions (important values for global sustainability) fall by the wayside. Here I address one great value that repeatedly gets displaced by American agribusiness interests: environmental sustainability. By examining U.S. Census projections and the inefficient use of natural capital,[1] I conclude that the American agricultural industry is unsustainable. If our current agricultural practices persist, many ecological life-systems will move from threatened to extinct, ultimately leading to a large-scale environmental and social catastrophe.[2] In my estimation, Americans’ nearly unencumbered rate of consumption coupled with uniformed consumptive patterns and negligent food-production practices greatly contribute to the rapid depletion of natural resources.[3] But first I shall explain what is meant by environmental sustainability.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, there seems little room for debate on whether the American agricultural system is sustainable. Broadly speaking, environmental sustainability denotes the maintenance of natural ecosystems within a network of interspecies relations; as a rule, industrial agriculture manipulates ecosystems to artificialize optimal growing conditions for crops to generate high yields. An offshoot of environmental sustainability is sustainable agriculture, which “does not deplete soil or people…[It] protects soil and water and promotes health of people and rural communities…[and it] needs to be ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just, and humane.”[4] However, as one study finds, sustainable agriculture does not always preserve biodiversity (biocenotic sustainability).[5] Therefore, a refined definition of environmental sustainability will include the entirety of the ecological community and be described as follows: rational human agents protecting the environment while using it for raw materials by ensuring exploitation does not exceed regeneration and waste production does not exceed nature’s absorptive capacity.[6]

A determining factor in establishing environmental sustainability for humans is population size and growth. In order for our agricultural system to be environmentally sustainable, the U.S. population that it feeds needs to fit within, and ideally be well below, the carrying capacity of the region. A carrying capacity is the maximum number of a given species that an area can support without preventing equivalent support for future generations. The current U.S. population is about 307 million. In forty years, that number is expected to increase to 392 million.[7] Within the scientific community there is not a clear concept of the human carrying capacity since technological progress can largely facilitate human population growth beyond what would be feasible under purely natural conditions. Nevertheless, we can foresee certain variables affecting our standard of living positively or negatively. Overcrowding coupled with limiting factors, like land, water, and food, would definitely leave many people on the outskirts of hospitable living conditions. One study suggests that for every person in North America to be guaranteed a relatively high standard of living, the population should not exceed 200 million, but it already has exceeded that.[8]

The greater our dependence on industrial agriculture, the more we need to overexploit land, water, and wildlife to meet the demands of America’s growing population. And if the dominant form of agribusiness severely degrades the environment, then it follows that the more we buy into this industry, the weaker ecological integrity becomes. Consequently, vital habitat and species recede, causing imbalances in flora and fauna, or ecological life-systems. Examples of ecosystems suffering simply through the introduction of a non-native species are well-documented.[9] But how exactly does industrial agriculture contribute to ecological suffering?

A large part of industrial agriculture is devoted to animal husbandry and the rest of this post will focus on that aspect. Annually, about forty-five billion animals are slaughtered for food worldwide; the U.S. slaughters about ten billion of them: nine billion chickens and another billion cattle, pigs, sheep, and turkeys. On the factory farm, the goal of high meat yields at the lowest possible costs results in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), highly processed animal feed, and the supplementation of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs. On average, Americans consume 222 pounds of meat per capita,[10] and only spend about seven percent of their disposable income on food.[11] Indeed, the choice by Americans to consume on these levels reflects a self-defeating culture. This means that endorsing the present form of agribusiness with our money results in pollution, environmental destruction, and poor health, all of which we or our future generations will bear the burden. We perpetuate our (self-destructive) industrial agriculture system partly due to a lack of conscientious consumer choices. Just like the producers, consumers tend towards whatever is cheapest.

Not only does the industrial agriculture system hide true costs, and pass the “savings” onto consumers, it also promotes wastefulness. A recent study from the University of Arizona indicates that, in the U.S., forty to fifty percent of all edible food ready for harvest is unnecessarily discarded or plowed into fields. On top of that, the average American family disposes of fourteen percent of food purchases.[12] Because food is so cheap to purchase, American’s hardly feel the impact of wasted food.

If rational, reasonable consumers were aware of the damage that industrial agricultural has on life-supporting systems, including our own, they would not make the kinds of purchases they do. The fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated sixty percent of U.S. rivers and streams as “impaired” due, largely, to agriculture runoff is reason enough to at least reconsider our production and consumption habits.[13] Take that information together with the fact that tens of millions of pounds of antibiotics are pumped into farm animals each year and leeched into waterways (producing strains of drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria), and we have compelling reason to cease current trends in production and consumption.[14]

Basic physics teaches us that food is energy. Our system of agriculture harnesses energy from water, nitrogen, and fossil fuels to produce crops, some of which are sold in the market, but much of which are fed to livestock. In effect, the agricultural system adds a trophic level to the food chain (e.g., compare the American system—seed→corn→cow→Texan—to subsistence methods practiced by indigenous Americans —seed→maize→Native). Since the ecological efficiency (the cost in energy or biomass from one trophic level to the next) is ninety percent, our present diets require the overproduction of grain and animals, and overuse of water, nitrogen fertilizers, and fossil fuels. The amount of fossil energy needed to sustain the typical American diet is double that of a non-meat diet, a difference of 150 gallons of fossil fuel annually.[15] This number is only growing. According to the American Meat Institute, we consume about twenty-eight percent more red meat, poultry, and fish than we did in 1970.[16]

By and large, our American system of agriculture is one of rape and pillage. To satisfy not only our food consumption desires, but also our overall economic desires, we overwork the land and overextract natural capital. To maintain America’s status as the global superpower, the U.S. government manages what’s produced and how it’s done. American interests, confined within a narrow scope of responsibilities, drive the ecologically-eroding plow with one goal in mind: production, ignoring ecological justice. If we were to move beyond our food preferences and affluent comfort to realize that our current diet is massively inefficient, rational people would have to adopt new systems of production and consumption.

This post focused only on the function and impact of agriculture in America; an important aspect of sustainability missing here is the global toll. A deeper analysis of the topic would reveal that the U.S. and international systems of government destroy subsistence farming in many developing countries. Instead, an institutional policy of “cash cropping,” a remnant of colonial rule, maintains an unjust economic power-structure. Through trade liberalization, industrialized countries have kept post-colonial nations in a state of arrested development (e.g., Ghana’s economic dependence on foreign aid and imports). Thus, industrial agriculture is an organ of a neo-colonial world—where authentic sustainability is conflated with a sustained, fascistic will to power.

[1] Natural capital can be understood as natural resources utilized within an economic system, ours being a market economy.

[2] In my opinion, the threatening /extinction of one vital species constitutes an environmental crisis/catastrophe.

[3] Of course, there are several other factors contributing to resource depletion, including the absence of political will, the misuse of water, land, and air in other processes, etc., which I ignore for brevity’s sake.

[4] Quoted in The Land Report, Spring 1986, p. 8.

[5] Gigon, Andreas. “Agricultural Sustainability does not imply Biocenotic Sustainability” in Applied Vegetation Science, 2(1) (May 1999), 89-94. The author of this study defines biocenotic sustainability as “the capability of a community to preserve its species composition and structure” (91). The case study observed was in North Switzerland’s Randen Mountains where sustainable harvesting has kept a rich species population. The study showed that certain anthropogenic alterations in and around the meadow stands and global changes negatively impact biodiversity. The author suggests that, while sustainable agriculture may not preserve biodiversity, biocenotic sustainability will not reduce current agricultural yields, but further study needs to be done.

[6] Definition adapted from Goodland, Robert and Herman Daly. “Environmental Sustainability: Universal and Non-negotiable” in Ecological Applications, 6(4) (1996), 1002-1017.

[7] U.S. Census Bureau. Contributing factors to the projected figure are fertility, life expectancy, and net immigration.

[8] Pimentel, David, Mario Giampietro, and Sandra G. F. Bukkens. “An Optimum Population for North and Latin America” in Population and Environment, 20(2) (Nov. 1998), 125-148. The total optimum number for both continents is 400 million, so the division could happen differently, but for our purposes let us just consider the split equal.

[9] A couple of examples are the zebra mussel in the U.S., which threatens several other species of freshwater mussels with extinction, and the South American water hyacinth, which has drastically altered the aquatic habitat off the coast of Texas and Louisiana.

[10] A 2007 estimate from the USDA. (



[14] Chen, Kenneth. “End Non-Therapeutic Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture.” (

[15] Pimental, David and Marcia Pimental. “Sustainability of Meat-Based and Plant-Based Diets and the Environment” in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (2003), 660-3

[16] For a global look at the growth in meat consumption, see

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Destroying the Commons

Destroying the commons – Opinion – Al Jazeera English. An article by Noam Chomsky worth a read.

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Summary of Sinai & Zion

The following is a summary of Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible by Jon D. Levinson. I recommend the book to anyone interested in a concise introduction to Judaism.

Part I: Sinai, the Mountain of the Covenant

1. The Sinaitic Experience or the Traditions about It?

Sinai/Horeb—two names given to possibly the same location—“the mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1 and I Kgs 19:8). Then how can we know for certain that they are in fact synonymous; which, if that were the case, would suggest an ambiguity in the tradition promulgating the locations existence, therefore rendering modern readers incapable of fully understanding the events surrounding the mountain’s existence. One way of accounting for the Sinai/Horeb connection is by capitulating to the mystery of God’s power, or as Rudolf Otto defines “the holy,” mysterium tremendum et fascinans.[1] This renders the mountain abstruse—a sort of ethereal object which may not be subject to empirical observation, but nonetheless is real in its experience [by Israel]. However, we can really only attempt to know the historical Sinai/Horeb through the Biblical accounts of it, in which case there are many Midrashim. According to Levinson, the accurate way to paint the picture of Sinai/Horeb is by focusing on the actors involved rather than the historicity of the environment itself, that is, “the relationship of YHWH to his people Israel.”[2] This approach understands Sinai/Horeb to be the binding knot linking the generations of Israel, functioning as commons from whence laws were given.

2. YHWH’s Home in No Man’s Land

Tracing the locality of Sinai in terms of its relation to the territories surrounding the Israelites leads to an indistinct site outside of established civilization, lending to Levinson’s conception of Sinai befitting an allegorical interpretation. As such, the cognomen of YHWH as “The One of Sinai” (Psalm 68:9) indicates parallels with certain traits of God to those of Sinai and, further, to associations between the foreignness of Sinai to that of Israel. Specifically, Levinson points out that Sinai is a sovereign place, unrelenting to the will of any Pharaoh—an amiable place then for the enslaved Israel. Also, for the God of Sinai, YHWH, the correlation between it and Israel is one of echoic instantiations, that is, the God of Israel reflects the upheaval of the people Israel in that it is “mobile, rootless, and unpredictable.”[3] Hence, Sinai serves as hope and refuge for Israel: their guiding light to lead them out of turmoil and enslavement.

3. Sinai and the Covenant Formulary

The earliest stages of Judaism, or YHWHism, indicate an animistic quality to the religion where YHWH is literally a “desert deity who…dwells on a mountain,”[4] however this is not to be taken as the primary and fundamental understanding of the Sinaitic experience. Take for instance the holy covenant between YHWH and Israel delivered at Sinai. This can be recognized as a suzerainty treaty between God the king and Israel the vassal. Following the covenant formulary, such as in Joshua 24:1-28, the holy covenant between YHWH and Israel is seen as a suzerainty treaty reflecting those established by the Hittite Empire (ca. 1500-1200 B.C.E.). This suggests a redaction of biblical history to sustain the notion of Lord-vassal relationships consistent with the Sinaitic experience.

4. The Theology of the Historical Prologue

Viewing Exodus to be the entirety of the historical prologue, the second step in covenant formulary, of the Hebrew Bible, Levinson concludes that the historical journey of Israel to Sinai becomes the journey of every Israelite. Fitting with the prime aspect of a historical prologue, to connect past with present, Exodus establishes a degree of communitas among the present Israelites through its story of Israel’s tribulation and the theophany of YHWH. Hence, the historical prologue draws the religious reader into the communion and covenant with YHWH, thus maintaining the covenant.

5. Mitsvot as the End of History

In this reading, the historical prologue serves as the prime reason for Israel to follow mitsvot. History presents to the people of the covenant a reminder of the stipulations set forth at Sinai and gives the context from which those stipulation were made, i.e., YHWH’s beneficence. This is what Levinson means by the end of history, because although history sets the stage for observance of the law, the duty to follow Mosaic Law surpasses observance of history. Whereas history indicates the relationship between Israel and YHWH, following the mitsvot embodies the suzerain.

6. Are Laws the Same as Commandments?

Referring to Albrecht Alt, the covenant stipulations can be distinguished as two types of law, casuistic, or situational and general, and apodictic, or specific, neither of which is subordinate to the other. These two types are law is exemplified in the Book of the Covenant and the Decalogue, respectively. As such, their acquiescence is held as law, hence, the Laws of YHWH, insomuch as they are commanded by YHWH [via Moses].

7. Ethics and Ritual in the Light of Covenant Theology

Rabbinic understanding of the Mosaic Law is a third way of interpreting the covenant. Under this reading, the law in its entirety is under the obligation of Israel to follow although its reasoning may be concealed from them. When or if it comes to the point of having to decide between the laws, one decree is not held in a lower degree of importance to another but a lower degree of priority. Levinson divides further three classes of law: 1) casuistic and between man and neighbor, 2) apodictic and between man and neighbor, and 3) imperatives lacking foreseeable punishment and between man and God, in an imitative way. This creates a covenant relationship that is encompassing of God’s relation to Israel and Israel’s relation to everyone else.

8. One God or One Lord?

A strict consideration of YHWHism as monotheism provokes problems issuing from the progressive growth of the religion from polytheism. Passages of the Hebrew Bible looked at comparatively show a dualistic component to Israelite monotheism, or at least a mutability to it. Three ways that the religion maintains its monotheism is through, first, attributing all divine power to YHWH, dispossessing that of the other gods, e.g. El, Baal, etc.; second, by observing the mitsvot, Israel fulfills the suzerainty and denies any other god of the role as suzerain, or Lord; and third, by disavowing any and all other gods, thus casting them into a class of fiction. This is where the worship of any besides YHWH is deemed idolatry, or worship of false gods, thus ensuring Israel’s vassalage.

9. The Kingship of God and the Kingship of Man

Permitting the kingship of Man to surpass the kingship of YHWH amounts to a breach in the covenant just as the worship of another god would. This pits YHWH and its law above and against any man viz. kings and pharaohs, in general the state. Based on primacy, the Sinaitic covenant prevents any other suzerain to hedge past YHWH save for a breach in the covenant by Israel. Any human king is to be seen as a secular ruler, separate and distinct from YHWH, the divine ruler.

10. The Wedding of God and Israel

The Sinaitic covenant is analogous to a marriage between YHWH and Israel. It is the culmination of a passionate love affair between the two parties entwined in the covenant, the one whom promises deliverance and those whom praise their redeemer. Therefore, Mosaic Law and mitsvot are reciprocations of the love fixed in the covenantal relationship.

11. The Ever-Renewed Covenant

The ritual of prayer, or specifically the Shma, recycles each generation into the place of the original Israel receiving the covenant at Sinai, thus reinstating the suzerainty. The Shma secures Israel in each generation to YHWH by contracting Israel’s love, reissuing the law, and engraining the words of the Torah into the lives its people.

Part II: Zion, the Mountain of the Temple

1. The Early History of Zion in Prose Traditions

After the theophany of YHWH at Sinai, a different covenant was established at a new mountain, Zion. This site of mysterium tremendum et fascinans supplants that of Sinai, permitting a new locale for YHWH to associate his name. Mount Zion’s geographic reality means that YHWH’s presence will be more succinct with human history and concrete. The movement of Zion from mountain to the house of YHWH is a sequential effort on the part of King David warring with the Jebusites. From his capture of the city, the first Temple is established and sanctified by the theophany presented to David.

2. The House of YHWH and the House of David

Comparing the covenant of David with the covenant of Moses might show a disjunction between who is king—as the Sinaitic experience maintains that only YHWH can fill this role, but David is promulgated as king. However, the notion of whose “house” exactly is being an established show that YHWH is granting a land to his vassal, David, thus forming a new covenant grant as opposed to the old covenant treaty. In this case, YHWH makes an unconditional promise to David, securing for his descendants a kingdom, illustrating the immutability of YHWH and the trust, or faith, it demands.

3. The Vitality of Myth in Biblical Israel

To reconcile the historical events that follow from the Davidic covenant, interpretation of the Hebrew Bible elicits the text as a form of myth. As Levinson uses the word, the myth of the Davidic covenant is an event outside of the space-time chronology of history. As such, the fact that the Davidic dynasty is subject to the discontinuity that all historical empires are subject to does not discount the authority or honesty of YHWH. The Davidic covenant in this sense is recognized as the event of the promise, the theophany.

4. Zion as the Cosmic Mountain

A continuance of this definition of myth is found in the distinction of Zion as a cosmic mountain. As Clifford explains, Zion is analogous with the Greek Pantheon; its being a juncture of opposing natural forces; its position as the axis mundi; and its being the pedestal and podium of decrees, all make Zion a cosmic mountain. This approach to Zion elicits a conceptualization of it as a cross-cultural archetype since the same account of phenomena is given in other religions isolated from Jewish influence.

5. The Temple as Sacred Space

Deriving from the sacral myth of the Temple at Zion, we see that the Temple represents a sanctified structure of the world expressed dioramic, hence the attention to minute detail given to the Temple in Exodus. This goes hand in hand with the previous analysis of Zion as a cosmic mountain because it reiterates the centrality of Zion.

6. Sacred Space and Sacred Time

From this concept of the Temple of Zion as dioramic of the world, it follows that the Tabernacle represents also the creation of the world.[5] The analogy can be made, in the first, drawing from the Temple the characteristic traits of construction and sacred blessing by the Israelites under the direction of Moses. In the second, the creation of the world is, too, constructed and made blessed by God. Further, this significance played to the Temples of God refiguring the model of Genesis is illustrated by Solomon’s Temple. Here the recurrence of the number seven is a reflection of the Jewish calendar, especially the Sabbath. As Levinson points out, the analogies between God’s creation of the world existing in a sacred time and Solomon’s construction of the Temple existing in a sacred space tacitly expresses a correlational effort in the divine work, or sweat equity, God put into the creation and the sufferings of Israel, ultimately culminating in the construction of the Temple. This evidences the in imitatione Dei as Israel does as God does, thus emphasizing the personal relationship of the covenant.

7. The Meaning of the Cosmic Mountain in Israel

Levinson goes about an exegetic examination of Psalms 48, 46, 2, 24, and 15, Isaiah 7-8, 29:1-8, and Jeremiah 7:1-15, in order to provide for the understanding of what the sacred Mount Zion meant to the practitioners of the religion viz. Israel. For instance, the attribution of certain traits to Zion as well as its nomen stem from the contemporary and opposing Canaanite sacred ascription to Mount Zaphon as Baal’s “home.” Here the eminence of YHWH is couched in the visional revelation of Zion; in a way, Zion is Israel’s cosmic television with the volume muted, in effect, it is the alternative to the conventional revelatory “word,” or, following along with the appliance metaphor, the conventional cosmic telephone. Another explication of this chapter’s focus draws from the Genesis account of God’s preeminence in maintaining cosmic order and therefore exhibits God’s unconditional deservedness of worship. In this case, Zion, as the temple or city of God, is the asylum above and free from the “tensegrity” (a modification of R. Buckminster Fuller’s coinage combining tension and integrity, used in this case to mean the clashing elements making up the whole of the world) of the nature and political chaos below. A final example from one of Levinson’s textual autopsies follows from the previous discussion, and it recognizes Zion as, first, the mutual, but not equalized, throne of YHWH and his vicar David and, second, the podium from whence Davidic law is ordained. Here, although David and his kingdom, Jerusalem, are reflexive to their natural condition (they are “in ordinary history”), the two are exhumed and exalted from ordinary history (they are “not of it”)[6] because of their sharing in the status of the divine via the cosmic mountain Zion. The ultimate link between [Davidic] politics and God’s rule is that both oblige Israel to “be still” (Ps 46:11), that is, accept on faith—and trust in—the guidance of YHWH.

8. Yearning for the Temple

Levinson describes the psalmist accounts of a deep and passionate longing to sit forever in the house of YHWH as a poetic hyperbole that emphasizes the prioritized role of ‘right being’ or correct moral conduct. Based on the ascription of the Temple as perfect, an ideal that one aspires towards, Israel is magnetically drawn to attendance at the Temple, in other words, Israel is compelled by the religion itself to emulate the ultimate ideal—God. The subsequent pilgrimage, thus, engenders a “spiritual ascent” for Israel, in that, the individual Jew seeking deliverance into the beatitude of YHWH is obliged by the ethical status of himself within ordinary, secular society; ethics, then, are the figurative ‘key’ to the gate of YHWH’s home.

9. The Survival of the Temple in Judaism

Considering the destruction of the Mosaic and Davidic covenants so long ago, it is a matter of significance to which Levinson focuses that this has not affected the rabbinic tradition surrounding these events. In Zionism, or the Jewish Restorationist belief, the covenant promise to provide a home—Zion/Jerusalem/the land of Israel—is maintained and kept relevant by the cosmic understanding of Jerusalem as both the geographic locale as well as the divine locale, where the two are interrelated in creating the land’s perpetuity. Comparatively, modern rabbinic Judaism epitomizes the anomalous puissance and fortitude of the religion. In this case, the religion reacts and adapts to its environment, e.g., the proscription of sacrifice lends to the supplantation of the ritual by prayer and the “word” of the Hebrew Bible; the destruction of the Temple instigates the use of synagogues; and so on Levinson lists the successions of the old by the new in a microcosmic redefinition of the Jewish status quo. However, this does not suggest the obsolescence of the land and the Temple; rather, the Temple never totally went out of existence. Based on the bilateral theology of the Temple and the bi-leveled understanding of super-reality against the mundane reality, only its physical manifestation is gone, but the cosmic aspect remains in the mythology of its congregation. Characteristic of this doctrine is the protological-eschatological timetable, which evokes an optimistic response from the Jew that deliverance will follow from their struggle; and in addition to this projection, it is suggested that the life of the delivered can be experienced to some degree in this life via the Sabbath and the mitzvah of Torah study.

Part III: The Manifold Relationships between Sinai and Zion

1. Zion as the Heir to Sinai

As time progressed onward from the time of Moses to the time of David and beyond, the significance of Sinai became appropriated to Zion. This is not to say that Sinai was no longer recognized, in fact Sinai remains supreme over Zion being the first and the site of Moses’ revelation. Rather what this means is that the eminence of Sinai as the assembly point for YHWH and Israel has become the eminence of Zion. To paraphrase Levinson, the physicality of Sinai has become Zion, but the message it represents remains that of the Sinaitic covenant.[7]

2. Sinai and Zion, North and South

From the schism of Israel, in 922 B.C.E, the nation’s division produced a northern state (Israel/Ephraim/Joseph) and a southern state (Judah), from which, the religion underwent a shift and apportion of its tenet theology. The regnant position focuses on the differences in interpretation and practice of the Sinai and Zion traditions, holding to these differences the general thesis that the schism produced a bifurcation of Israel theology. In brief, these various theories delineate between the form of YHWHism that Israel assumed and weighs this against the form of YHWHism that Judah assumed. Levinson, however, acknowledges the fact that the differences inherited by each state are real and evident, but he maintains, the conclusion that this signifies a separated and conflicting religion is a hasty one. Together, the following instances of transmission of synchronistic beliefs, or what the regnant theory holds is solely or particularly the case for a singular state, substantiate Levinson’s stance: first, the idea that Israel was alienated from the David royal theology is unfounded; second, although redaction might have followed from the south’s wish to syncretise northern material, the fact that the theology of monarchy is amenably received in the south shows that it’s false to attribute it to the north alone; third, the geographic division of the states did not impede the spread of “northern” materials, nor did it necessitate the isolation of the Sinaitic covenant from the Davidic covenant; fourth, the Mosaic covenant was present in the south; fifth, given to the fact that the Sinaitic and the Davidic theologies do not contradict or are compromised by the other, it follows that they can coexist; sixth, the kingship that is proffered in the Davidic theology is consistent with that of Mosaic theology, save for the dynastic limitation; and, seventh, the covenant formula issued in Davidic theology is consistent with those of foreign theologies, i.e. Jehu’s dynasty.

3. Covenant Renewal on the Cosmic Mountain

Insomuch as the Sinaitic tradition and the Zionist tradition function in concert with one another as a synergetic covenant, Psalm 50 expresses the necessity of one in order to understand correctly the other. It is from the renewal of the covenant that this synergic quality is fashioned. For Zion, the covenant takes the form of a rib because Israel has fallen away from its obligations. YHWH widens his purview from the original covenant formulation to include the entire world, in effect resonating YHWH’s dominion over the world, tying secular and sacred together into Israel’s covenant, and redefines the old dogmatic particularities.

4. Moses and David

The focus here is on the relationship between the Sinaitic covenant of Moses and the Davidic covenant of its namesake. Some theorize that the more recent integrated into the older tradition, but this is undermined by the vast difference in the types of covenants the two were, the first being a treaty and the second being a grant. Others propose that the Mosaic covenant offered a reinterpretation of the Davidic covenant, underscoring the necessity of the observance of the mitsvot, therefore promulgating the primacy of the Mosaic one. However, another approach to the two covenants pits that of Moses in opposition with that of David, given that the Mosaic covenant held YHWH as independent and in control, whereas, the Davidic covenant entailed that YHWH is congruent with the political state. Levinson ascribes to the significance of the two covenants a status of mutual agreement. That is, both covenants serve as the guide from which the Jewish life is established.

[1]  Jon D. Levinson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985), 16.
[2]  Ibid., 18.
[3]  Ibid., 22.
[4]  Ibid., 23.
[5]  Ibid., 142.
[6]  Ibid., 155.
[7]  Ibid., 188.
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Holy How!?

I found this video featuring comic Nathan Fielder talking with Senator Ernie Chambers humorous, prompting me to write a bit about theodicy. For more about Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers’ work satirizing frivolous lawsuits and in conjunction religious dogma, see this longer interview.

Should Believers Look For God in Suffering?

Hayim Greenberg begins his essay “In Dust and Ashes” with the provoking question behind rational theodicy: “What is God doing now?”[1] Effectively, this question prompts follow-up questions indicative of the real issue at hand—God’s role in the human affair of suffering. Is God active: Does It cause suffering? Is God passive: Does It suffer with us but is so bound by necessity or is It subject to Universal chaos? Or, has God rescinded into abject neutrality, essentially abandoning Its creation, wherein we find ourselves more as latchkey children and less as “chosen” subjects? Moreover, the atheistic position is substantiated by these questions to resound that there is, in fact, no God at all—a conclusion that for Greenberg is unacceptable.

However, Greenberg does not see these questions, and the subsequent expectation for their answers, as pertinent to the believer; rather, he argues, the “true believer” does not seek to vindicate God—rational theodicy has no place in true faith. Thus, Greenberg promotes the Jobian model: a man reduced to “being but dust and ashes” is compelled to “recant and relent” his probing into an explanation from God to account for his suffering (Job 42:6). I agree that this is the marked quality of the believer, unwavering in her or his acceptance of God, with an abiding faith defiant to logical proofs, and as such I am compelled to an intellectual position of irreligiousness.

Greenberg’s denouncement of rational theodicy focuses on the inadequacy of three routes to justifying God. I am calling these respectively the Eliphazic route, the spiritual-growth route, and the utopian route. The Eliphazic, or pietist, route regards suffering as deserved. God, in this vein, is “barbaric,” a “cosmic police magistrate who doles out reward and punishment for good deeds and for transgressions.”[2] The spiritual-growth route argues that “[e]vil is the shadow, or the background, of good;”[3] that is, suffering is salvific, it enlightens the soul, and it provides opportunities for humanitarianism; thus suffering is a just means to an absolute end. The utopian route, similar to the latter, grants that “the world [is] in perfect order and that whatever happen[s] in it [is] equally in order.”[4] For Greenberg, each of these theodicies is fundamentally deficient for the religious person. Greenberg essentially divides human life into rationalist conceptions and religious conceptions, where one cannot properly cede to the other.

Just as Greenberg says, “Religious thought must…renounce rationalist interpretation and justification of the ways of God…whoever seeks a sign of God’s justice and goodness in the events of the world, an empirical and demonstrable confirmation that He exists and that He is the bearer of the highest good, will never find it.”[5] Therein lies the rub: I am not willing to commit myself to a body of truths, with which I may (even on a superficial level) disagree, if I cannot account for its justification. Greenberg decidedly offers two paths for one who wants to retain rationalism: “either deny the existence of God or come to the conclusion [that God is disinterested with mankind].”[6] Where the religious man, for Greenberg, may be content to “believe without understanding, to trust without explanations,” as Job teaches, I am inclined to understand and to explain. I do believe, however, that the consequences of a willingness to accept the mystery of Job, that is the mystery of suffering, are very near those of the aforesaid theodicies. Although it is less of an impediment to action as the guilt-affirming pronouncements of Eliphaz, the ability to assuage explanation and responsibility by referencing the “numinous” is no less than a limiting factor on human provocation, effort, and obligation to oppose preventable suffering.

In our era of around-the-clock news coverage, we constantly have to confront the reality of suffering, and as the toll on human life, and more so life in general, from active destruction grows, we cannot be so complicit as to rely on the auspices of faith to alleviate that which properly calls for humanitarian efforts. We cannot be mere bystanders any longer. The continued existence of poverty, unjust war, and ethnic cleansing all carry the labels of gratuitous suffering and injustice, and forbearance in the presence of an injustice is itself an injustice.

[1] Hayim Greenberg. “In Dust and Ashes,” in The Dimensions of Job, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217.

[2] Ibid., 222.

[3] Ibid., 220.

[4] Ibid., 220-221.

[5] Ibid., 223.

[6] Ibid.

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Invidious Distinction: Is It Selling-Out or Is It Commodification?

The concept of selling-out, sacrificing personal integrity for material gain, is a ubiquitous concept and hardly a new one. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes its first usage to the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1862); in the version edited by C. V. Woodward (1981), about the surrender of Norfolk to Lincoln’s Union, she writes, “Another sellout to the devil. It is this giving up that kills me. Norfolk they talk of now. Why not Charleston next?” (336). Unless you’re anticipating the Confederate South to rise again, then this should be clear: Selling-out doesn’t take a negative connotation because to whom or for what one sells-out, but, rather, the act itself belies the actor’s character, hence nobody likes a sell-out. To sell-out is incoherent, and it leads others to question the actor’s authentic self. And no one likes a two-face either. (Even Harvey Dent had the integrity to consistently act based on chance.)

As an accusation, selling-out has never been more popular it seems since the prominence of the World Wide Web. Before nearly everyone had a voice in the court of public opinion, people could only disappoint their closest friends and family or themselves by forfeiting principled values for superficialities. With public scrutiny democratized through the Internet, people capable of building an oeuvre become targets for critical analysis, their motives being closely inspected against the content of their work. This outpouring of art and commerce is the topic of the Colin Marshall article about Wes Anderson’s “commercial success.”

Wes Anderson, for those unfamiliar, is the director behind Bottle Rocket (1996), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), to name the one’s that I’ve seen. His visual style is fairly distinct: Generation X fashions amidst detailed scenery captured in continuous, panoptic shots. His narrative style notably evokes a sentimentality and intimacy about flawed characters and calm dysfunction. He also has a cult following. Those adherents are probably the most vocal about his recent stint as a corporate shill. But is he (and those other auteurs who’ve done commercials: e.g., Jean-Luc Godard and David Lynch) “sell-outs”?

If we accept the definition above, then for Anderson to deserve the title we need to show that he sacrificed principle for profit. While I’m a fan of the auteurs above, I’m no expert on their works; that said, Godard’s Marxist Weltanschauung excepted, none of these directors bolster a particularly anti-commercialist message through their works. Since they create T.V. spots that bear their distinct marks, one can’t really accuse them of creative prostitution. However, that’s not to say they haven’t done something commercial, and in so doing commodified their style.

Commodification only requires that a thing be transformed through economic relations into a good that is bought and sold. While moviemakers presumably make movies to be distributed in the market, the film per se, and not the artist, is the commodity. When Anderson makes a commercial for a corporate entity, he’s no longer dealing with a distinct product in the open market in which we all participate; instead, he’s selling his style (read: himself) to the corporation which in turn is selling its brand to us consumers. Commodification differs from selling-out in that the latter, as we’ve established, requires a betrayal of integrity.

Now that we’ve established that Anderson isn’t a sell-out but is guilty of commodification of the self, the question remains: Has he done something detestable? No. Advertisers extending their hands to directors, and directors taking those hands, is an acceptable way for these directors to produce material within a market economy—the notion of integrity notwithstanding. You can determine whether this material is valuable for yourself.

Regardless of your stance on the cultural value of commercials, commercials are severe mini-shorts, and they can be as inane as a slogan repeated ad nauseam over a still image or as captivating as a dramatic allusion to an Orwellian dystopia. Wes Anderson’s overstuffed, rococo, 1960s- and 70s-time-bomb style particularly lends itself to the frequency of commercials: Viewers can discover new parts of the mise-en-scène they missed before.

Of course, an advert is an advert and should only be taken in moderation, always through a critical lens, never passively. All the cultural responsibility shouldn’t fall squarely on the artist’s shoulders. Intelligent fans should be able to discern the craft from the gimmick (as should every consumer!). Alas, people do shop according to envy, emulation, and “mental engineering” (also the title of a good show that analyzes ads and used to be on PBS, by the way). Ironically, the people likely to care about an Anderson or Lynch or Godard commercial are also likely to scrape off the pre-consumer waste from the bottoms of these ads. Those that don’t appreciate the signature of these directors are likely to index these segments in their minds alongside furniture liquidation ads. In the end, marketers foot the bill of expensive furniture liquidation announcements. (At least that’s what I hope.)

Reinforcing my point, Marshall observes how out-of-place the product is in these ads. Here’s where someone could argue that the director has indeed sold-out: None of the films these directors made have full-screen, abject product placement. Though, is anything of the artist’s original idea lost? The sheer incongruity within the advertisement should at least defer the accusation; the branding at the close of these commercials appears tacked on by someone other than the director much the way a Let’s-All-Go-to-the-Lobby-type insert precedes a feature film. Watch Lynch’s commercials. Some of his ads integrate the product, others don’t; either way, the effect is some of the most humorous stuff he’s made. His commercials play like an SNL or Kids in the Hall parody of German/Existential advertising: the mark of Lynch is there, but the product is unimportant and seemingly pretend.

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Well, you know my name is Simon…

…and I like to do drawings.

Take a gander at The Unencumbered Pen, my drawings page, if you’d like to take an active role in passing the time. It, as with all of frommherrtzueternity, is nascent; so visit briefly and frequently, for you never know when I might publish something new. (Yeah, this is better than reading a book.)

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The Writing Word

In Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, the author expertly guides writers, novice and seasoned, along the rough terrain of prose. He outfits readers with a handy toolbox that makes the task of writing a little less interminable. I’ve placed Clark’s 50 tools below both as a reminder to myself and as a benefit to readers.

Nuts & Bolts

  1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs: Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
  2. Order words for emphasis: Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
  3. Activate your verbs: Strong verbs create actions, save words, and reveal the players.
  4. Be passive-aggressive: Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
  5. Watch those adverbs: Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
  6. Take it easy on the –ings: Prefer the simple present or past.
  7. Fear not the long sentence: Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.
  8. Establish a pattern, the give it a twist: Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
  9. Let punctuation control pace and space: Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.
  10. Cut big, then small: Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
  11. Special Effects

  12. Prefer the simple over the technical: Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity.
  13. Give key words their space: Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
  14. Play with words, even in serious stories: Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
  15. Get the name of the dog: Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
  16. Pay attention to names: Interesting names attract the writer—and the reader.
  17. Seek original images: Reject clichés and first-level creativity.
  18. Riff on the creative language of others: Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
  19. Set the pace with sentence length: Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
  20. Vary the lengths of paragraphs: Go short or long—or make a turn—to match your intent.
  21. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind: One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader.
  22. Know where to back off and where to show off: When the topic is most serious, understate: when least serious, exaggerate.
  23. Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction: Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
  24. Tune your voice: Read stories aloud.
  25. Blueprints

  26. Work from a plan: Index the big parts of your work.
  27. Learn the difference between reports and stories: Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
  28. Use dialogue as a form of action: Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
  29. Reveal traits of characters: show characteristics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
  30. Put odd and interesting things next to each other: Help the reader learn from contrast.
  31. Foreshadow dramatic events or powerful conclusions: Plant important clues early.
  32. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers: To propel readers, make them wait.
  33. Build your work around a key question: Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
  34. Place gold coins along the path: Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
  35. Repeat, repeat, and repeat: Purposeful repetition links the parts.
  36. Write from different cinematic angles: Turn your notebook into a camera.
  37. Report and write for scenes: Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
  38. Mix narrative modes: Combine story forms using the broken line.
  39. In short works, don’t waste a syllable: Shape short writing with wit and polish.
  40. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes: Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
  41. Write toward an ending: Help readers close the circle of meaning.
  42. Useful Habits

  43. Draft a mission statement for your work: To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
  44. Turn procrastination into rehearsal: Plan and write it first in your head.
  45. Do your homework well in advance: Prepare yourself for the expected—and unexpected.
  46. Read for both form and content: Examine the machinery beneath the text.
  47. Save string: For big projects, save scraps others would toss.
  48. Break long projects into parts: Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
  49. Take an interest in all crafts that support your work: To do your best, help others do their best.
  50. Recruit your own support group: Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
  51. Limit self-criticism in early drafts: Turn it loose during revision.
  52. Learn from your critics: Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
  53. Own the tools of your craft: Build a writing workbench to store your tools.
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