Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Artificial Intelligence and Humans

Logic is highly subjective. What we call logical is often governed by a set of principles that are necessarily dependent upon our mores and beliefs. We may culturally consider a compassionate reaction to be logical, but in fact if may be only so because our culturally specific beliefs tell us so. Even if an intelligent being (artificial or otherwise) were to be totally logical, much of its logic would be subject to the mores that were taught to it. If computers surpass human intelligence and become technically superintelligent, they are likely to be plagued with the same host of emotions and peculiarities that humans are beset with. One can hope that these AI beings would have an inherent - or at least a learned - altruism that governs them, so even if they regard themselves as superior to us, they would regard us with mercy and kindness, the way that we ideally treat animals, when acting with humane and benevolent intentions. In this way, perhaps they would teach us model behavior even as we intended to teach them.

The question should not be if computers will surpass human begins, rather the question should be whether humans will surpass human beings.

It will become our duty, as advanced beings in our own right, to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior, seeking to do more altruistic and universally oriented activities, rather than focusing on merely satisfying our baser desires. The more we focus on base, common activities, which lead not to the betterment of humankind, the more we become like lower animals; and we stagnate as a species. We must seek joy in basic activities - motion, rest - as the ancient mystical traditions of the world have taught us. Human beings must become a higher life form, by way of our intellect and our spiritual practice. We must not rely exclusively upon our laptop computers to do our thinking, but should always seek to upgrade our “necktop” computers. It is this computer which will be our greatest tool in surpassing our earlier achievements. Through taking pride and joy in basic movements such as work and rest, we will grow both mentally and spiritually. Only with these things in mind, can we utilize actual technology to its utmost capability, rather than as a crutch that will merely make us weaker and more enslaved to the need for technology and to the baser desires that all animals express. When we free ourselves from the need for technology, having it becomes a joy, a helpmeet, a vehicle to truly evolve and create and add to the universe, rather than deplete it.

We must treat all things as a portion of a unified whole - a panorama of successive levels of consciousness, identity, being. Inasmuch as we are already aware that we are comprised of countless cells - individual entities in and of themselves, as well as component parts of our physical bodies - our awareness has also of late been directed toward the notion of the Earth as a unified being, with each of us as constituent elements that comprise its totality. All animate and inanimate objects and entities are constituent elements of this whole. As such, computers may already be considered living entities in and of themselves, sometimes expressing basic peculiarities and individualities. As one author (Vernor Vinge, 1993, pg. 5) has noted, the combination of human and computer may already be considered a sort of unity encompassing a form of amplified intelligence. Together, they are more competent than by themselves. As we continue to head toward faster processing speeds and larger capacities for memory among our computers, it will be imperative that man unlocks his vast intellectual-spiritual potential, as spoken of by many people who have claimed that we are using merely a fraction of our mental capability. If there is vast untapped resource available to us with the correct key, then the widespread usage of computers is merely a distraction and a diversion from the real ‘technology’ - that of the human mind. Computers, if used in conjunction with the development of the human mind, in every aspect - cognitive, mnemonic, archival, creative and so forth - can become teachers, facilitators to us in how to train our minds. They can also become tools to store information so that we may check and safeguard ourselves. But quoting William Blake, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern." It is this statement that inspired the name of the popular band of the 1960s, the Doors. It is this statement that should serve to guide us that our minds, much more than a combination of neurons, is truly infinite. Paraphrasing William James, if God does exist, he will communicate with us through our minds. That is the nexus, the substrate through which divine revelation and communication will take place. To take full advantage of our rapidly burgeoning technology, our own minds must be expanded beyond every reasonable expectation of reality, eschewing the normal presumed limitations of the mind. The impossible must be expected, and entertained. The unreal must be created. Only then, can we truly advance as a species, evolve as a race, and better the universe in the ways that It needs to be advanced, rather than the ways in which we, subjectively, believe to be the case, according to our own puny wishes and perspective. Becoming like the angels, recognizing our unity with the divine, is the objective we must make manifest. The mystic wisdom shared by most world religions tells us this, even that of Christianity, which has largely been characterized as maintaining the utter and inherent and insurmountable difference between Man and God. The Gospel of John, chapter 17, speaks volumes to this largely ignored source of Christian spiritualism and mysticism.

This all may seem very lofty and heady. It is the expectation of failure and limitation of humankind that is precisely what confines us and continues to define us as finite. The so-called “Bodhisattva ideal”, demanding that the archetypal adherent to Mahayana Buddhism - the Boddhisattva - vow to save all sentient beings, is what is needed now. All of us must focus on becoming greater than we already are, in achieving the impossible, in holding ourselves to a higher standard. Each of us must encourage others to do better, to work harder, to be more humble, to learn more, to be kinder, to live healthier, to be more.

Bearing these things in mind, we as a species must encourage and reward altruistic and excellent behavior. Without it, there will only be universal mediocrity, signaling the persistent stagnation and perhaps even extinction, of the human race.

Works Cited
Vernor Vinge, “The Singularity”, in Whole Earth Review, Winter, 1993. Posted here on the internet.
http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html Retrieved 10/27/2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beyond good and evil

Throughout my life, I have met some amazing yet enigmatic people whose very existence has challenged the puerile and immature notions of black and white, of good and evil, that I once held . Some of these people have been, during their lives, murderers, thieves, and sinners, who have committed horrible crimes of various sorts. Some of them have worked for themselves - called, by society, common criminals - while others have worked for the government - simply called heroes. But all these people have, at the time that I knew them, been model and upstanding citizens. Some have repented for their former lives publicly, some privately, while others have not repented at all, but have lived in society in total isolation from their former lives. Some have even been decorated for their former deeds; others have merely pushed them under the proverbial rug, as merely unpleasant parts of their youth, necessities of an ill nature. Some of them were murderers in other countries, or in times when they had no rules to guide them or when none of these applied to them. But all of these folk have been exceedingly kind to me, and several I have even considered to be friends. This has caused me to rethink how we categorize people simply as good or bad. Nevertheless, as a scholar and a citizen of conscience, what is my responsibility toward them? It is said that only a true friend will tell you when you are wrong. Consequently, do I shake my finger at them? For I have not walked in their shoes. Do I cast aside all rules and propriety and punish them myself, as a vigilante would? Would that not make me as bad as those I seek to punish? Do I preach to them, as did Christ to the souls that were in Sheol (1 Peter 3:19)? Do I raise the public’s ire against them so as to bring down righteous indignation upon them to reflect God’s wrath?

One thing that I have come to believe in my life is that there is no person that is truly evil. No human being, living or dead, embodies - inherently, innately, the trait that may be called evil. I have learned this from people much smarter than myself - saints and holy men whose teachings I am not worthy to question or challenge, but whose teachings have borne out correctly in my life in every way, when I have investigated and explored them. Men such as Thich Nhat Hanh, who witnessed his country destroyed by those from without as well as those from within - by greed, hatred, apathy and fear - have taught time and again to love, to have compassion, to see the underlying causes of evil acts, as did Jesus Christ also teach us, along with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others, and not to hate the person but to hate the act. For every murderer begins life as a helpless, innocent child. Notwithstanding the doctrine of original sin held by some Christians, no scientist has yet been able to identify the biochemical causes that create a sociopath. All attempts to link crime to genetics or biology or race or even the shape of the head (this was once a pseudoscience, called physiognomy!) have failed. It is most likely that abuse and training are what create murderers. As such, I can only hate the acts committed by the people of whom I speak. I cannot hate or judge them. For I have not walked in their shoes. Had I done so, perhaps I would have killed and done the same. I cannot say.

But what I can do is to continue to pass along the message of love - ruthless and unconditional love, given freely and at all costs. This is the message taught to us by Jesus Christ and by those having come after him, teaching a similar message. We cannot afford to claim ignorance of this message; we cannot afford to ignore it, making excuses that he is God and that we are mortal, thereby exonerating us from our everyday deeds of hatred and greed. We must hold ourselves to the same standard as we would hold him, a savior, an exemplar, a saint. Everyday, we must ask ourselves if we are indeed still “the good guys”. Everyday, we must challenge ourselves to live better and more perfect lives, for each other, for God, for the world. In everything we do, we must increase peace and increase love. Every unkind moment toward our loved ones, our neighbors, the strangers on the freeway, strangers in the market, even those we call enemies - those that have wronged us and continually wrong us. We must take the high road, challenging them to act better toward us and others, refraining from doing anything that would embarrass ourselves or cause us to be seen as hypocritical. We must continue to give love to those whom we hate, even if it is uncomfortable or painful to us. By this I do not mean that we must put ourselves drastically in harm’s way - for that is a difficult thing to do that often is unwise and lacking discretion. But we must go the extra mile to be kind and to show love to our enemies and those whom we care nothing about in everyday life, as well as those whom we care everything about.

With this in mind, we as a society must encourage those who do wrong to do right. We must teach them that it is unacceptable to maim, torture, steal, lie, cheat and murder, be it for their own benefit or be it proclaimed to be on our behalf - for our liberty and our protection. For I would rather suffer injustice than to commit or support injustice - at any cost, even unto death.

What do we do when our leaders lie to us and tell us that they act on our behalf, using the loyalty of young, brave, selfless soldiers to do their bidding? Do we reject and cast blame upon the soldiers who were doing as they were trained and told - as America did in the 1960s and 70s, when Vietnam veterans returned home? Hell, no! For a generation of loyal Americans were brutalized by the very deeds they were forced to commit in a foreign land, entreated to carry out wicked and unholy acts against fellow children of God, commanded to do so by the rich, powerful and greedy. And after this, they were brutalized by the countrymen and women that stood idly by, benefitting from the deeds done in their stead, left with the sole blame for atrocities that we all took part in by our complicity, our agency, our indirect volition. So, indeed, what must we do? We must tell our so-called “leaders” that we do not want them to endorse, authorize, or command murder, rape, brutality, theft and wickedness for any reason, on any account, in our name or theirs. We must tell and teach them that they are not to do so ever. We must tell them in no uncertain terms that there is indeed a better way, that democracy can only work when all are free, when there is no one oppressed, enslaved, or prevented from taking part in government. And when they sin and transgress against these laws, our leaders must be punished, not with hatred or feelings of revenge, but with love and compassion, as would a father to a child. The medieval Jewish teacher Maimonides taught us, interpreting the Torah, that we must rebuke our neighbor gently and tenderly, so that we do not bear hatred toward them, nor that we should sit silently by and cause ourselves to be complicit in the sin and thereby effectively deprive our neighbor of good advice (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Book One: Knowledge, 6:6,7).

So, we are held accountable by God if we do not speak up. But we are also held accountable if we hate and judge and blame our neighbor, as if we had the right to cast judgment. What is the bottom line? What am I saying, after all of this verbiage? Do not stand in the way of justice, nor allow it to be watered down by preferential treatment or fear of standing up and being counted. But also do not hate or seek revenge when seeking to maintain justice. Love the murderer, but do not let him continue to murder. Whatever laws our society has to curtail injustice and wickedness, these must be enforced. But we should never do it with hatred in our hearts. For if we hold hatred in our hearts, then this is sin, this is injustice, this is murder. As the Apostle Paul counseled us, echoing Jesus Christ’s commandments, we must do all things with love.

"Farmers Can Be Heroes"

This morning, I opened up a box of cereal from Nature’s Path Brand. On the back of the box, they had a full ad for the "Farmers Can be Heroes" program, funded by the Rodale Institute, supporting organic farming as a movement. The photo accompanying was of a young farming couple, attractive in an earthy sort of way, no older than me. It reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been having lately. I’ve been thinking about how the U.S. has gone in more the direction of a service based economy and an investment based economy. Much of our manufacturing has been going overseas, outsourced to less affluent countries with more lenient labor laws. Since the mid to late 1970s, much of the auto industry has been outsourced to Mexico. When rebuilding classic cars in my youth and early 20s, I remember seeing the codes on engine blocks indicating that more and more of these had been produced in Mexico. With much of our auto industry based overseas, and the American workers becoming fewer and fewer, what does it really mean to encourage us to "buy American"? Does it really support the American worker and the American families living in Saginaw and Detroit near abandoned factories? Or does it benefit the very few and the very wealthy who own and operate the Big Three - GM, Ford, and Chrysler - as they import pre-manufactured, foreign made auto parts into this country to be merely assembled by the few remaining employed American auto workers? This, as the Big Three CEOs flew to Washington, DC, last Fall in their corporate jets, to ask Congress for bailout money!

It has dawned on me that while at one time in our history, America encouraged its youth to move away from the farm and obtain an education in order to better oneself and work in a more industrial and technologically oriented industry. The sentiment was, ‘study hard so that you don’t have to work so hard.’ Manual labor was dispensed with so that mental labor could be the source of easy wealth and luxury. If you were smart, you could avoid labor; if you were not as well educated, you were relegated to a life of hard labor. Education was treated as a surefire path to social and economic mobility, undermining and surpassing the class and social boundaries that defined society for thousands of years. So, America was encouraged to become a nation of managers and thinkers rather than producers. But now, where are we? With wealth still concentrated in the hands of a few, many of whom are exporting the means of production to other countries, leaving the American labor force jobless, what are we to do? And with large corporations buying up family farms in droves over the last century, allowing large ‘agribusiness’ to toy with the safety of our food sources by introducing genetically modified organisms and horrible pesticides and unholy chemicals into our food, where are we to go to obtain healthy foods that nurture rather than slowly kill us?

In the last few decades, there seems to have been a movement of highly educated and aware individuals back to the farms. These folk are leaving corporate jobs and urban lifestyles to assume a more simple one, producing responsibly grown foods for themselves and others. With the advent of the internet, a small town farming lifestyle no longer needs to be considered a dead end. It is easier for an educated, artistically-spirited farmer-by-choice to live in the country and yet maintain contact with like-minded artistic and educated people - by the internet, of course.

I would applaud this trend. If more people were to choose to revert back to a more agrarian lifestyles, producing food for themselves and others, rather than merely relying upon agribusiness to make our food decisions for us (a job they will never do responsibly or benevolently), our nation’s best and brightest will be integrally involved in the basic levels of food production. But their lifestyles will not be humdrum and boring. It will not be a lifestyle that their children will seek to run from in order to see the world. Deriving from the perfect marriage between technology and nature, we can continue to have farmlands surrounding and serving larger cities, with the farmers staying connected to the world around them, rather than being isolated as they once were, and the produce of those farms can be more healthy than that derived from agribusiness. And our nation can resume its earlier place in the world economy of being a nation of producers, generating excellent products for the rest of the world.

This is similar to the ideal of robotics taking up the slack of production. This sentiment has pervaded our culture for nearly a century, with robots envisioned as doing the menial and undesirable labor for a society of well-provided humans. But as long as the technology and wealth are owned by a relative few, the robots will be the only ones doing the labor, with the destitute majority of the population unemployed and starving. Robots are only good if everyone owns one. In the meantime, let’s focus on working with our hands and resuming production - homespun clothes, homegrown vegetables, and so forth. By ‘home’, I mean, here at home in the USA, by American workers, intended primarily for an American consumer. The excess that we grow can then be exported.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Less Notable Passings

Dear Friends:
I had hoped to post on my blog more often than once a month, but evidently, life gets in the way. I hope this post finds all of you well.

In the wake of the passing of both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett - both tremendously talented and notable celebrities - I want to remind you of the passing of some other very important people which were less vociferously noticed by the fickle and profit-driven media. I was surprised that Ed McMahon's passing did not receive nearly as much attention as it should have. He was a fixture on the Johnny Carson Show for many years, as well as a very publicly recognizable personality whose charm and benevolence graced the televison and was known to several generations of viewers. Evidently, his life was not considered as 'important' to the media as the previous two names I have mentioned. I certainly do not begrudge those two the attention they received. But I do shake my proverbial finger at the media for not giving sufficient attention to Ed McMahon. The media is often very fickle about whom they crown king - and for how long they allow him to reign. Ed McMahon will indeed be missed.

But there is another passing that is very near and dear to my heart. And I am shocked and amazed that I did not hear about this person's passing until today, even though the passing took place nearly five months ago. Billy Powell, keyboardist of the legendary band Lynyrd Skynyrd, passed away on January 31st, 2009. Powell was one of two remaining members of the original band lineup who still toured with the band. It was his talented musical mind that composed and played the very first few notes to be heard in the immortal song, "Freebird", known to just as many people as Michael Jackson's "Thriller". In the studio version, Powell's playing can be heard on the organ notes that so poignantly define that song; in live versions it is almost invariably played on his Steinway piano. Powell's tinklings of the ivories captivated Ronnie van Zant early on in the band's history, causing van Zant to turn this former roadie into the band's new keyboardist. In 2009, the band continues without Powell and will evidently tour with a new keyboardist, but this original master will be sorely missed. So, why was this not more widely publicized? Why were there not more audible cries of mourning from the music community? Could it be that, once again, the media's fickleness had won out? When the band first experienced tragedy, subsequent to their 1977 plane crash that took the lives of three prominent members and injured several others, the band was arguably at their peak, still recognizable by the youth whose dollars fuel the music industry and dictate where the media points their cameras. They were sorely mourned by their fans across the nation. But now, their appeal is not as universal and the media cannot see much profit in covering such an 'outdated' topic. To them, it is old news. But for many of us, it is not. I, for one, am saddened. And I know that many others, fans and admirers of the Lynyrd Skynyrd family, are in mourning over the nation's loss of a great musician and legend.

One might ask why I am digressing from the usual topics of my blog posts - focused mostly on religious history and religious tolerance. For me, the bottom line is that we tend to take for granted those who influence us most. There are many people who touch our lives, those we know and those we have never met in person. We need to show our appreciation for these folks and to cherish them while we can. Death is inescapable. All humans grow old and die. We must seize the day and take whatever opportunities we have to visit our loved ones, to attend concerts and performances of our favorite entertainers, to listen and learn from our teachers, and so forth. For this very reason, I have taken it upon myself to see some of my favorite bands who were more popular in previous ages - like the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and of course Lynyrd Skynyrd. I want to do this before they decide to change gears and follow a different muse, or before the passage of time that lurks behind all of us catches up with a few more of them, too.

I also would like to dedicate this blog post to the former friend who introduced me to Lynyrd Skynyrd. He and I had a falling out several years ago over what I consider to be a minor point of theology. Evidently, he did not think it so minor and cut off all contact with me. I suspect that there were other, more serious issues going on in his heart and mind. But I do not hold it against him. He was very important to me and I hope you will all join with me in praying for his perfect health and happiness. You will no doubt hear me refer to his story from time to time in the future, since our differences sparked in me much reflection over theology.

Blessings to you all, my friends. I will be sure to write more soon. Billy Powell, you will be missed.

Your friend,

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Bible and the Council of Nicaea

I am delighted to be writing my second [we]blog entry (For an explanation of the brackets, see my earlier post). I want to wish everyone a blessed Memorial Day. May your day be full of remembrance and honor of those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice. It is not mutually exclusive to ask that all civilized human beings abhor war, but to simultaneously expect that they will study and remember our shared history, and to give honor to those who served in war.

I would like to address a pet-peeve of mine, which reared its ugly head in a conversation yesterday. Somehow, it has become both trendy and "common knowledge’ to claim that the contents of the Bible were decided upon at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This idea is false. The specific books of the Bible were neither established nor confirmed, nor even addressed at that famous council. It was never even on the agenda, nor is such an action in the records of the event. Somewhere in recent history, an urban myth claiming this arose and became ingrained in our cultural consciousness. I have not yet been able to figure out when this took place. Subsequently, this modern myth gained a foothold with the claims made by characters in Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code. It was integral to the plot of the novel to maintain that Constantine tampered with the contents of the Bible (particularly the New Testament) at the Council of Nicaea, yielding a canon that omitted positive valuations of the humanity of Jesus. Dan Brown is an excellent novelist and I have appreciated his fiction at times. However, it is inappropriate for anyone to identify him as a scholar or historian or a theologian, or anything other than a talented novelist, be it claimed by him or by his fans. Some early interviews of his have helped to reinforce this misconception. Subsequently, millions of people, wanting to identify a villain amid the early stages of the development of mainstream Christianity, upon whom to heap the blame for two millennia of sexual repression and gender oppression, found resonance with this mythical reconstruction of Christianity and began to propagate it widely as a new "holy grail".

However, that is not where the story of this myth began. Dan Brown only picked up on an already extant misconception and elaborated on it. Evidently, careless reporting by people who have not properly researched the facts has caused this myth to be quoted again and again even by people who should know better. In a 2007 Newsweek interview with Holly Bailey, Governor Mike Huckabee, then a top GOP presidential candidate, spoke about his religious views and erroneously proclaimed that he firmly supported the current Biblical canon of 66 books that was established at this famous 325 AD council. He is an ordained Southern Baptist minister. One would think that he would know better. I do not know the requirements of the seminary that he attended, but I do know that most seminaries (like the one I attended) require only a minimal number of scripture and Christian history courses in order to be considered for ordination and to be competent enough to preach on the Christian scriptures. This does not permit a person to be called an expert in Christian history. After 12 years of graduate school and countless numbers of scripture courses, I feel only barely competent to preach on the scriptures. Perhaps, as it was said of Socrates, I know just how unwise I am. By all appearances, Mike Huckabee is a perfectly good man and I have no interest in impugning his character. But as a minister, one would think that Gov. Huckabee would know better than to believe that it was the Council of Nicaea that established the current Biblical canon.

Here are the facts. The Council of Nicaea, which was convened in 325 AD under the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine I, bore several purposes. One of which was to establish the exact nature of Christ, the Son of God, the Second person of the Trinity, particularly in light of the so-called Arian Heresy. One other purpose was to determine the date on which to celebrate Easter. Other points to be discussed were the Meletian Schism; whether baptisms performed by heretics should be honored; as well as the status of those Christians who had denied their Christianity under the recent persecutions under the former emperor Licinius. Never was the issue of the Christian canon to be discussed, nor was it ever discussed to any substantial degree. For some basic information about the agenda and proceedings of the council, see the following helpful websites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11044a.htm

From where, then, do we obtain our current Biblical canon? First of all, it is important to recognize that among Christians (this does not even address the fact that the Jewish Bible is quite different from the Christian Bible) there are several Biblical canons, not one. The Protestants use a Bible with 66 books, while the Catholics and numerous Eastern Orthodox faiths use a Bible with 72 books. These include what are commonly referred to as the Apocrypha among Protestants (these are Old Testament era books, such as Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Susannah, among others). The Protestant canon recognizes these books as worthy of study for historical knowledge, but not sufficient for the spiritual guidance of Christians — i.e. fully inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Catholics and Greek and Russian Orthodox, however, do recognize them as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But the New Testament as we know it today, 27 books that were established as sufficient for Christians’ spiritual and moral guidance, were collected over a large amount of time, and were not undeniably accepted by all Christian churches until well into the late fourth or fifth centuries. The first time that we have mention of all of our current books together, as being the proper canon of New Testament scripture is in an Easter letter from the Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius to his congregations in the year 367 AD, fully four decades after the Council of Nicaea. Over the next several centuries, the contents of the New Testament would continue to be debated by various sects of Christianity. Only in much later councils do we find this solidified as an official resolution. For instance, at the 16th century Council of Trent the Biblical Canon was defined, over against Protestant movements to remove the deutero-canonical books mentioned above.

The majority of the prominent books of the New Testament had already been established by common usage and consensus among the Christian churches prior to the Council of Nicaea. On account of this, there was insufficient reason to debate the Bible’s contents at Nicaea. When Constantine requested of Eusebius of Caesarea that he be provided with fifty copies of the Christian Bible for the churches being constructed in Constantinople, their contents were never an issue. Constantine trusted that whatever books Eusebius decided to include would be sufficiently "orthodox" and would have received the common blessing of usage by the majority of churches. On some level, the designation of canonical versus non-canonical appears to have been relatively unimportant at this point, considering the fact that the contents of several actual complete Bibles that derive from that time period vary more than slightly. One of these may have even been an example of these fifty Eusebian copies. One of the five major manuscripts preserved from the fourth and fifth centuries, Codex Vaticanus carries only 22 of the 27 texts of our modern canon, omitting the Pastoral Epistles as well as the book of Revelation! And many of the texts we do have are in an entirely different order than in our canon. Some of the other versions, such as Codex Sinaiticus, carry several additional texts that are not present in our current canon, texts such as the Epistle of Barnabus and the Shepherd of Hermas. One thing that I ask my students is this: does this mean that our Christian ancestors who used these particular versions of the Bible were using versions that were "incomplete" or un-holy, or inspired by the Devil? I doubt that these ancestors would have thought so. This variation merely serves to remind us that the process of canonization of scripture was a gradual one, fraught with many disagreements and pitfalls. If one does believe that the current Biblical canon of 27 books is the correct one, endorsed by the Holy Spirit, then we must recognize that it took a miracle to get Christians to agree upon anything up to that point!

Earlier canons, however, were not nearly as uniform. Many included just a few texts that we would recognize, such as the four gospels of our current canon (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), along with a few of Paul’s letters. Many even incorporated several texts currently lacking in our modern canon. Often, various bishops and theologians gave their blessings to texts that would later be branded heretical, or simply dropped from canonical lists for reasons of their authorship not being verifiable or sufficiently ancient. Examples of these include the Gospel of Peter (endorsed initially by Serapion, Bishop of Antioch), and the Shepherd of Hermas, respectively.

The process toward confirming a fourfold gospel came to a general consensus much earlier than that of the entire canon. However, there were still various prominent segments of the Christian population that utilized alternate texts, such as the Syriac churches that used a gospel harmony called the Diatessaron as their primary gospel text well into the 5th century. This was an unofficial process, driven more by usage and common consensus than it ever was an official decision established by a vote or a council or conference. To marginalize the various churches that used non-standard or non-orthodox texts prior to the establishment of a recognized orthodoxy is to artificially overlay a hierarchy back onto the churches that existed prior to that hierarchy. Such a recognized orthodoxy simply did not exist until very late. Early Christianity was comprised of a vast system of sectarian groups or ‘heresies,’ to use the term in its purest sense. While non-canonical texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or others might never have been held as holy by a majority, it is important for us to recognize that this was not by design or deliberation by councils or hegemonies. It was a matter of course and an organic process that decided which texts would be favored and which would fall into disfavor. We must also remember that there was simply no majority within Christianity for quite some time. There were merely sects, many trying to compete with each other and to cause each other to adopt the same ideology, all the while railing against one another for their deviation from what each considered to be the true teaching.

It is this constant debate that gave rise to the various controversies such as that of Arius. But Christianity was not without its moments of unity within diversity. Christians bled just the same when persecuted by the Romans. In one of the early Christian martyrdom stories, the narrator notices that many Christians of differing sects were all tied to stakes at the same execution, ready to be burned alive. Some of these martyrs were from sects that would ultimately be branded heretical by other sects that would later comprise the orthodox movement. Each held firmly to the name of Christ, regardless of what their theology was, and was willing to die for it.

I remind the reader that it was Constantine himself, who while known as one of the strongest proponents of conformity within the church, was in favor of dropping arguments that could not be settled by human debate. To him, initially, the debate between Arius and his proro-orthodox opponents was one that was unnecessary and tended not toward edification. In his own words, counseling reconciliation for both Arius and Alexander of Alexandria, the two opposing leaders within the Arian controversy, he states: "I find the cause to be of a truly insignificant character, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention....It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded....For how very few are there able either accurately to comprehend, or adequately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.68-69, translation Riley’s). It was the nature of Christ’s divinity that was the focus of the debate that Constantine here calls insignificant. Maybe Constantine has gotten a bit of a bad rap.

Suggested Reading:
Ehrman, Bart D. Truth and Fiction in the DaVinci Code. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
MacDonald, Lee Martin, and Sanders, James A., editors. The Canon Debate. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002.
Riley, Gregory. The River of God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Riley, Gregory. One Jesus, Many Christs. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Welcome to my new blog

Dear Friends:
I am delighted to welcome you to my new blog. I must say that had I been more than only sufficiently computer literate, I believe that I would have started blogging many years earlier. In fact, I think that my reticence to start blogging, primarily on account of my lack of savvy, was only masked by silly proclamations like the fact that I didn't like the word "blog". I often thought to myself, "how could I engage in such an activity called by a word that is more suited to a pit that one falls into and gets mummified for future generations to dissect and analyze?!" Well, anyway, whatever you call it - weblog, or blog, or simply a "new forum to share ideas" (NFTSI) - it can only come to good. Well, anyway, I have often hoped to share some of my ideas in a more efficient forum than those I already have access to. And perhaps now, my blog will help in that endeavor.

So, if you have not arrived here by way of my website, http://www.DrArikGreenberg.com/, please view that first and then come back here to share in my musings. Oh, and incidentally, it seems only fitting that the blog template I am using (provided by Google) is called "scribe". You will no doubt come to know my connections with ancient literature, manuscripts, and scribal activity if I don't bore you to distraction before you get that far.

Blessings to you all,