Saturday, April 18, 2009

AtF: Are You Offended Yet?

So that we may bring the subject we are about to study into its proper perspective, we must first allow that many of our preconceptions regarding ancient man are mistaken. It is commonly supposed, for example, that the nations if the world became aware of the God of Genesis only after they were evangelised by Christian missionaries. Only since the translation of the scriptures into their own language, it is assumed, did they become conscious of the Creation and the God who created it. It is further supposed that early pagan man can have had no concept of a divinity higher than that of an idol, because it is impossible to come to a knowledge of the one true God without that knowledge being given through the direct revelation of His Word, and so on.
Are you offended yet?
Popular thought seems never to have considered the possibility that pagan man was indeed aware of God and of His attributes and power, and that this awareness had existed and flourished for centuries without any recourse at all to the scriptures.
Getting closer?
So it is with something of a surprise that we meet with exactly that, a profound knowledge and appreciation of an eternal and almighty Creator God, His fatherhood of the human race and His infinite attributes in the writings of various historians in the ancient world and amongst the teachings of the earliest philosophers.
How ‘bout now? Good, then. This is how we open “Chapter 1: Knowledge of God Amongst the Early Pagans” of After the Flood. It’s fascinating to note the way the argument is already forming. All those “pagans” (i.e. non-Christians, and, begrudgingly, non-Jews) already knew about the greatness of Yahweh. Actually, Elohim, since Elohim is the Jewish term for the creator god. I don’t know if After the Flood is going in this direction, but for the evangelist this statement then goes back to the Pauline admonition that the Law was already written on everyone’s heart. So if you don’t know and understand this particular limited interpretation of the concept of the Divine, it’s your own damn fault you’re going to Hell. He then takes the next logical (by the strange definition of logic that brings such a book to us) step.
So profound was the concept and knowledge of God amongst certain pagan peoples in the ancient world, and in particular the Greek and Roman worlds, that a controversy eventually arose and was to rage for many centuries between those who propagated and preserved that knowledge of God as the Creator, and those who sought to destroy it by attributing the creation of the universe to purely natural forces. The marked similarity between that pagan controversy and the controversy that rages today between creationists and evolutionists is surprising and we shall be examining that controversy in this chapter.
So now we know. This isn’t actually an attempt to create a harmony of religious myth. It’s an attempt to conflate ancient arguments for or against god with the creationist/evolution debate. He also unwittingly opens up the soft underbelly of his entire argument in the process. In order for the sin/damnation/salvation cycle of the Biblical literalist to work, everyone has to be walking around completely aware of the fact that they are violating god’s Law at all times. Because if they’re not, that means that they have to acknowledge that there’s some real jackassedness in that whole Hell thing. In order for everyone to know god’s wishes, everyone has to be related to the folks in those Bible stories. I actually used to sit in church and listen to pastors explain that Adam passed the story of god down through his descendents and Noah did the same and in this way everyone knew all of god’s laws before Moses came along and wrote down the Law. If you read that and think, “That makes no sense,” chances are it means you’re sane. Anyway, Cooper now has to prove his point. So he goes to that most logical of all places: Lao-Tzu. Who gets an italicized name for some reason I can’t fully understand.
‘Before time, and throughout time, there has been a self-existing being, eternal, infinite, complete, omnipresent Outside this being, before the beginning, there was nothing.' (1)
I find this quote highly suspect. I spent a lot of time talking about poor citation when I started in on 1421 so I won’t belabor the point here. However, he cites a version of the Tao Te Ching published by a group called Llanerch Press in Wales that seems to be an extremely small press that specializes in mysticism and regional Welsh interests. Fortunately, the Tao Te Ching is the sort of thing that ends up in a lot of open source repositories on the internet. I went with the one published by CUNY and started doing a search for terms found in the quote. Nothing showed up. The closest I got was Chapter 25, which, not surprisingly, wasn’t close.
There was something formless and perfect before the universe was born. It is serene. Empty. Solitary. Unchanging. Infinite. Eternally present. It is the mother of the universe. For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.
That sounds more like Lao-Tzu. And Chinese mysticism in general. Now that we have this baseline, I’m hoping I don’t have to explain to anyone how a Taoist would be extremely surprised and offended to find he or she had actually been following the teachings of the somewhat anthropomorphized Jewish creator god. The Tao, for those who don’t know, is more like the Force fused with Plato’s Forms. And that’s probably a wildly inaccurate explanation. However, it does help explain why Yoda sounds kinda like Lao-Tzu sometimes. Now, in an attempt to keep the creationist/evolution debate going, Cooper follows this with a quote from Kuo Hsiang (also italicized).
'I venture to ask whether the creator is or is not. If he is not, how can he create things? The creating of things has no Lord; everything creates itself.' (2)
In this case he quotes from a book called Nature in Question by John Clarke. This is incredibly bad citation. There are rules for this that say if a direct quote is made from a secondary source, the original source must be supplied. Otherwise I have to do more work and get more angry. Anyway, I did find the quote as part of an anthology of Taoist thought (search for Kuo Hsiang in page). And, yes, Kuo Hsiang was a Taoist who probably did say basically what the quote indicates. See, Lao-Tzu and Kuo Hsiang would have been allies, arguing against a force external to the Tao bringing the universe in to existence. But, y’know, that point is lost when you try to anthropomorphize the Tao in order to force a defenseless, dead philosopher to support your highly suspect arguments. He then offers a quote from “the following ancient text from Heliopolis in Egypt” which I’d love to refute. Sadly, since “Heliopolis” is the Hellenized form of “city of the sun,” I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing I can do there. In general, however, I’d like to point out that anyone who confuses a city with a person probably shouldn’t be trusted. Feel free to disagree. Either way, following some commentary about Egyptian creation myth, he offers this trenchant observation:
Curiously, we meet with the same lack of challenge to the creationist view almost throughout the ancient literate world. For example, we encounter this same absence of atheism or materialism in both Mesopotamia and early Israel, where records make no mention at all of any materialist thinker even by way of condemnation or refutation, save perhaps the solitary biblical observation that, 'the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God'. (5)
This comes exactly two paragraphs and two block quotes after he claimed “alongside every Lao-tzu who proclaimed the existence of God in the world of ancient China, there was a Kuo-Hsiang ready to dispute it” (italics his). So I guess that means the Chinese were illiterate? Also, if you head over to the Table of Contents, you’ll notice that there’s something missing, namely any mention of any non-European descent anywhere in After the Flood except for a single, extremely short entry in the Appendix. By the way, it’s hilarious. This, by the way, is a good place to stop. Seeing as how it’s taken me three pages to get through a fairly short section of text, I’m thinking that I’ll tackle the much longer following part about the Greeks later. Maybe even tomorrow, since the first quote he hopelessly mangles from the Theogony of Hesiod is just awesomely bad. EDIT: Corrected title of Chapter 1, fixed link.

5 comments:

jessa said...

This reminds me of that cliche: if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If the only conclusion is Jesus, you have to either say Taoists and everyone who isn't a Christian is completely wrong and nuts or you have to mangle their works in order to make the conclusion still be Jesus. Most Christians tend to take the former option, this guy seems to have taken the latter.

Is the mysterious italicization of Chinese names perhaps to indicate transliteration? A lot of books do italicize transliteration and all foreign words, even if they share the alphabet with English, although they usually do exclude proper names from this.

hapax said...

You've got a bad link there on "the Descent from Japheth" etc., though it's not hard to figure out.

Unlike what variety of pharmaceutical inspired the appendix in question.

Are you sure that you're up to tackling this one, Geds? 'Cause there ain't enough Scotch in my cabinet to persuade me to try.

Sniffnoy said...

"Self-existing being"? It... exists itself?

peanutsnraisins said...

We meet with the same lack of challenge to the creationist view almost throughout the ancient literate world...What? What "ancient literate world" has he been reading about? One without Greece & Rome, or India, or even China? Hell, twenty seconds of Googling found me this nifty book on the topic.

Geds said...

Are you sure that you're up to tackling this one, Geds? 'Cause there ain't enough Scotch in my cabinet to persuade me to try.Sadly, I'm so far taking an almost child-like delight in this. I mean, it's like the most wonderful convergence of bad history, bad theology, bad philosophy, bad rhetoric, and bad writing possible.

Although I did get this strange, inexplicable feeling of dread a couple weeks ago when I poured the final drops out of my bottle of Dewar's Special Reserve. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something...

It might be necessary to finally break down and buy a bottle of Lagavulin 15 year. If anything deserves a $70 bottle of single malt, this could be it.