Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bob Y.'s comment on my post on "Sex at Dawn"

Below I'm showing Bob Y's comment on my post on "Sex at Dawn", because I can't get it to go into the comment box. I'll comment on his comment as soon as possible.

Dear Peter,
I read your blog while taking a break from a major task/chore. You have certainly put a great deal of effort and thought into it. And that sti9mulates serious thinking on the part of the readers. I think, however, that sexuality particularly in the modern context is a much more complex and bewildering subject. Let me share my impressions albeit it is from the perspective of male-female interactions.
Culture: this is perhaps one of the most important variables in defining sexuality. In many societies in Asia and the Mediterranean, sexuality can occur in two different contexts. One is directly linked with marriage, family, and social stability. That sexuality is monogamous and is directed towards having children. At the same time, and socially acceptable, there is sexuality that exists outside of the marriage and is cemented by emotion, personal feelings, and a broader freedom in selection of mates. And it may turn out to yield a true companionship, but does not have to lead to children.
Modernity and change. There are major trends that affect how sexuality is expressed. Among others:
Urbanization: your thesis is grounded on the ideas of an agricultural society. However, UN statistics indicate that this year, more than 51% of the world's population will be urban and that this will increase rapidly beyond that. Besides that, multimedia technology now has introduced rural communities to the values of an urban society. So increasingly, the definitions of sexuality will be increasingly that which exists in the cities.
Science: we have done well in expanding the frontiers of reproductive medicine. For one, we can now routinely make use of contraception to avoid having children, i.e., self-standing yuppie couples. Alternatively, you can have children without necessarily having a relationship or even intercourse - in vitro fertilization, surrogate parenthood. So sexuality can be detached from the bearing of children.
Workplace: the explosive growth of women in the skilled and professional workplace. This allows women to be financially independent which can lead to the choice of being single mothers. Again we see the separation of a sexual relationship from having children. But perhaps what I find most interesting is the development of workplace relationships where a man and a woman will spend most of their time and a great deal of their emotional and intellectual energies in shared efforts to the degree that they have more in common with each other than with their formal partners. This can occur even in the absence of a sexual affair which makes it interesting that it can be seen as sexuality without sex.
So changes in sexuality are likely to accelerate driven by the forces sketched above. Yes, Peter, sex and sexuality are a complicated business.
Best, Bob

Saturday, December 11, 2010

“Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”

God wants abundance for all, says Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.” (25:6) Luke tells us Jesus says that the basis of abundance is sharing: “Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.’’ (6:38) Sharing also precedes the feeding of the multitude in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15). In these stories, Jesus takes the disciples’ little bits of bread and fish, blesses them, and, lo, everyone has more than enough: “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full” (Matthew 14:20).
In other words, sharing is God’s way. At least when it comes to food, but most definitely not when it comes to sex, according to the Bible. For example in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus is quoted as saying: “…Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” No sharing here. As the traditional marriage ceremony says: “…and forsaking all others, (will you) be faithful to him (her) as long as you both shall live?” According to Christian tradition, monogamy in committed relationships is God’s way.
But, it is not evolution’s way. As Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá write in their new book, “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality”, “We didn’t descend from apes, we are apes.” And we are closely related to two other apes, bonobos and chimpanzees, because just five million years ago (an evolutionary blink), they and we shared a common hypersexual ancestor, making bonobos, chimps, and, yes, us, horny and ready for sex with multiple partners all the time. Remember, a genius is someone who thinks about sex only 95% of the time.
Up until about 10,000 years ago, we, like bonobos and chimps in the wild, lived in small foraging groups of about 100 to 150 individuals who moved around to find food and who shared almost everything, including food, shelter, protection, child care, even sexual pleasure. (p6) Although romantic love was not unknown in prehistoric communities, with or without love, a casual sexuality was the norm for our prehistoric ancestors.
However, about 10,000 years ago, human life changed profoundly. We discovered farming and we settled down to farm and raise domesticated animals. We no longer foraged over large areas, but settled down and farmed. Agriculture could, in good seasons, produce food surpluses and allow more people to survive, but it also led to: “…hierarchical political structures, private property, densely populated settlements, a radical shift in the status of women, and other social configurations that together represent an enigmatic disaster for our species: human population growth mushroomed as quality of life plummeted. The shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, is a ‘catastrophe from which we have never recovered.’ (p9) Before agriculture, our “…ancestors lived in groups where most mature individuals would have had several ongoing sexual relationships at any given time. Though often casual, these relationships were not random or meaningless.” (p9) “An individual male’s parental investment,…the core element of the standard narrative (supporting monogamy), tends to be diffuse in societies like those in which we evolved, not directed toward one particular woman and her children…” (p13) Instead hunter-gatherer societies are characterized by their fierce egalitarianism. “Sharing is not just encouraged; it’s mandatory. Hoarding or hiding food, for example, is considered deeply shameful, almost unforgivable behavior in these societies.” (p11)
Sharing, however, became a casualty of agriculture. “…it became crucially important to know where your field ended and your neighbor’s began. Remember the tenth commandment: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is thy neighbour's.’ (Exodus 20:17) Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves, perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock.” (p14) “Land could now be possessed, owned, and passed down the generations. Food that had been hunted and gathered now had to be sowed, tended, harvested, stored, defended, bought, and sold. Fences, walls, and irrigation systems had to be built and reinforced; armies to defend it all had to be raised, fed, and controlled. Because of private property, for the first time in the history of our species, paternity became a crucial concern.” (p 14, 15) So, perversely, agriculture, which increased food production, also restricted access to food and, because women became property, to heterosexual sex as well. Furthermore, Ryan and Jethá quote Timothy Taylor, author of “The Prehistory of Sex”: “While hunter-gatherer sex had been modeled on an idea of sharing and complementarity, early agriculturist sex was voyeuristic, repressive, homophobic, and focused on reproduction.” “Afraid of the wild, farmers set out to destroy it.” (p 14) Farming, which increased food supplies for those lucky enough to own land, also introduced scarcity for all those who were landless and poor.
Also, the focus on paternity and keeping the private land in the family in agricultural societies set us on the road to monogamy, always unlikely, because we evolved to want multiple partners, which minimizes the genetic perils of interbreeding. Even today, which after all is only 10,000 years since our foraging days, many men and women want multiple sex partners. However, “…the true story of human sexuality (is) so subversive and threatening that for centuries it has been silenced by religious authorities, pathologized by physicians, studiously ignored by scientists, and covered up by moralizing therapists.” (p2)
Monogamy is difficult and usually boring. The “bloom is off the rose” too soon, and many husbands and wives stop having frequent sex. Men can develop a roving eye and indulge in extramarital activities, leaving their wives neglected and angry. It’s not that men no longer love their wives, but rather they begin to love them as their “best friend” or “sister,” a sure sign that the incest taboo has become active. Furthermore, male and female orgasms are very different. Men can usually be aroused and ejaculate quickly. Too quickly, women complain. They often take longer to become aroused, but once they are, they want many more orgasms. And often they let anyone in earshot know their desire for more by their female copulatory vocalization (FCV). These sounds in other primates are invitations to males outside their own troop to come and mate, thus increasing the chances that their eggs will be fertilized by sperm from males unrelated to the males in the female’s group. (p257) It’s a good bet that these sounds in women evolved to serve the same purpose. Ryan and Jethá write: “This symmetry of dual disappointment (of men and women in monogamous relationships) illustrates the almost comical incompatibility between men’s and women’s sexual response in the context of monogamous mating.” If men and women evolved to be monogamous, why are they so incompatible? Ryan and Jethá suggest: “…isn’t it time to accept that our ancestors evolved along a sexual trajectory similar to that of our two highly social, very intelligent, closely related primate cousins (who evolved in promiscuous groups)?” (p245) They continue: “Perhaps the far-fetched denial of our promiscuous sexual prehistory expresses a legitimate fear of social instability, but insistent demands for a stable social order (based, as we’re often reminded, upon the nuclear family unit) cannot erase the effects of the hundreds of thousands of years that came before our species settled into stable villages.” (p246)
Furthermore, whether we’re for or against monogamy, it is failing, and with this failure, “the nuclear family unit” is disintegrating. Ryan and Jethá write: “In 2008, almost 40 percent of the mothers who gave birth in the United States were unmarried.” However, two parents are better for children than only one. Ryan and Jethá quote Caitlin Flanagan in Time magazine: “On every single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households.” The outcomes included longevity, drug abuse, school performance, dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, and incarceration. (p302, 303)
The village that Hillary Clinton writes about in her book, “It Takes a Village,” can help relieve the pressure on the nuclear family and provide needed support for single parent families, but it wouldn’t restore us, our families, and our sex lives to Edenic bliss, where food and sex partners were readily available for all. A village is basically an agricultural settlement, and with the rise of villages, our foraging days ended. Moreover, improved agriculture has increased the earth’s population to unsustainable levels. In just the last 2000 years, population has grown from 170 million to nearly 7 billion. (p156) With all these people, there is no longer room to roam and forage.
We need to discover new ways to be sexual and familial in this post-foraging, post-monogamous world. As we struggle with the knowledge of our sexuality and the failure of monogamy, will the church help or hinder our efforts? It’s all too easy to dismiss the church as an impediment to sexual progress, but the Gospel is ever calling for us to be true to ourselves and thus to God. Remember John 8:31, 32: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” One “word” attributed to Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18b, is: ‘“…you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (Mark 12:31, 32) If we embrace the “truth” that we are sexual beings who seek multiple partners, we may also begin to experience these partners as “neighbors.” It worked for our foraging ancestors; can it work for us, their descendants?
To read more comments on “Sex at Dawn,” go to:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Bullying of Gay Youth: What Can be Done to Stop It?

What can be done to stop the bullying of gay youth? The horrible deaths of the young men reported recently in the media are very disturbing. What can we do to stop this bullying? Below are some suggestions.

1) Keshet (, the organization that works for full inclusion of sexual minorities in Jewish life, suggests:

Ten Things You Can Do Today to Strengthen Our (LBGT) Community

1. Find truth in the Torah. Ask your rabbi to give a Dvar Torah (or write your own) about the tragic events of the past month and our responsibility as Jews to speak out and work to end homophobia and transphobia. Here's a beautiful example from Rabbi David Mitchell, Radlett & Bushey Reform Synagogue, UK.

2. Speak out. The next time you hear someone say "That's so gay," tell that person why those words are hurtful and can have disastrous consequences.

3. Make your support visible. Post a Jewish GLBT Safe Zone sticker in your synagogue, classroom, camp bunk, office, or website.

4. Take action for equal rights. Contact your legislator to support ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that prevents people from being fired or discriminated against at work for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

5. Keep youth safe and supported. If you are a Jewish educator or administrator at an educational institution, provide training and resources for your staff on how to create safe, inclusive spaces for GLBT and questioning youth. Help start a Gay-Straight Alliance.

6. Come out as an ally. October 11 is National Coming Out Day. If you are a straight Jewish community leader, let people know that you are an ally to GLBT people and keep the messages of support coming.

7. Come out. If you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and/or queer, come out and keep coming out. This simple act will help others.

8. Talk to your children. Middle and high school students witness homophobic and transphobic bullying and teasing every day. Tell your children you support them and that all kids deserve to be treated with respect and kindness.

9. Tell your story. Whether you are queer or a straight ally, upload a video to the It Gets Better Project" and share your story with young people who need to hear your message. Visit the Make it Better Project to see powerful stories about what young queers and allies are doing right now to improve their schools and communities.

10. Seek support/give support. If you or someone you know is struggling with issues around sexual orientation and/or gender identity, know that you are not alone. Crisis support is available 24/7 through The Trevor Project, 1.866-4.U.TREVOR.

Do Not Stand Idly By: A Jewish Community Pledge to Save Lives. Go to the Keshet website to sign it Now!

2) From the news website, 365Gay, John Culhane suggests many avenues of action. See his column at:

May we find truth in the Torah!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"A Huge Loss of Belief in the Fundamental Narratives of Christianity and Judaism"

The letter below, published in the "New York Times" on August 14th, describes in a few words the challenge facing all religious organizations today: How do people view the relationship between divinity and humanity? Our search today is for a way of talking convincingly about this relationship, if it exists.
In his latest book, "Theology's Strange Return" (London: SCM Press, 2010), Don Cupitt writes about how talk about that relationship is evolving. He points out "... that a surprising amount of traditional Christian belief - including a new Grand Narrative, and a non-metaphysical theology - is currently returning to us in secular form." How will this play out? Our search continues.

Re “Congregations Gone Wild” (Op-Ed, Aug. 8):
Although G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s essay about the congregational ministry is on the mark in many ways, the real issue is much deeper than “congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.” It is a huge loss of belief in the fundamental narratives of Christianity and Judaism, the biblical concepts of divinity in relation to humanity. The crisis of the ministry is theological.
During the many years I served in the congregational rabbinate, I witnessed the radical changes taking place in the beliefs or nonbeliefs of both professionals and congregants. Nothing will solve this problem except radically revised theological perspectives in response to radically new conditions, if that is even possible.
Jack D. Spiro
Richmond, Va., Aug. 8, 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

History Ain't on Your Side

I found the Blog post below on CCBlogs. It's by Marvin Lindsay whose blog is called Avdat. The URL is:
I'm glad someone else has read Peter Brown. I wrote about his treatment of sexual renunciation on my blog in a post called, "The Curse of Virginity." It's at:

27 July 2010
History Ain't On Your Side
by Marvin Lindsay
My next contribution to the peace, unity and purity of the church will be to teach a course on early Christian sexuality. If we're condemned to fight over sex ad infinitum, I want both liberals and conservatives to know that neither has history on its side.

Imagine a time when substantial numbers of Christians regarded procreation as a great evil. Imagine a time when the counter-cultural "left" practiced sexual renunciation. It's not some science fiction future. We've been there and done that.

As part of a directed study on monasticism I read Peter Brown's The Body and Society and Susanna Elm's Virgins of God. Both are excellent historical works. Brown's book could just as easily been titled All the Reasons Why Primitive Christians Quit Having Sex.

There were practical reasons, to be sure. Given the appalling levels of infant and childhood mortality, Roman women needed to give birth to six children just to maintain the population level. The Caesars pressured them to do just that, for the ruling class needed offspring to inherit all that upper crust wealth. Patriotism asks a lot of its soldiers, but Roman patriotism asked even more of its women. Six kids! In fourth world squalor! No wonder many Christian women found celibacy appealing.

But a purely materialist explanation won't suffice. It was the power of an idea that drove many Christians, male and female, to renounce sex.

Origen's ideas, especially. Origen theorized that before we were born, our souls had rebelled, and we fell into material bodies. Origen did not regard the body as evil, as Gnostics did, but as God's tailor-made tool to instruct the soul on how to return to God.

Sexuality then, was not part and parcel of our identity, for sexuality belongs to our material existence in this world. Didn't Jesus say that in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels? Origenist thought held out the possibility that here and now one could transcend one's embodied and thus sexual nature.

Renouncing sex was one means. Fasting was another. A diet of one loaf of bread a day will, over time, cause your period to dry up and your breasts to shrivel. Women went into the Egyptian desert and passed for male monks. Origen's notorious act of castrating himself did not prevent him from having sex, but it did diminish his secondary sexual characteristics, most notably the philosopher's beard his competitors would have grown in Alexandria.

For other Christians, celibacy was tinged with apocalyptic fever. Tatian's disciples in Syria wondered why anyone would have children, because procreation just fed the death machine. Quit reproducing, and the kingdom will come.

The non-canonical Acts of Thomas, to which we owe the legend that Doubting Thomas preached the gospel in India, contains a similar idea. On the way to India, Thomas ruins a royal wedding when he convinces the bride and groom make a chaste marriage because kids are more trouble than they're worth. The King was not amused when he realized this stranger had cheated him of grandchildren.

In the early fourth century, this stew of ideas had generated bands of mixed sex, wandering prophets whose women cut their hair short, ridiculed marriage in general and married clergy in particular, and showed no interest in settling down and leading orderly lives, much less begetting offspring for the good of the Empire.

Other Christians were appalled, and as the fourth century unfolded, it would prove to be a decisive one not only for doctrine and church-state relations, but for sexual ethics. The misogynist Jerome and monastic architect Basil insisted that the body could not be transcended but only transformed. They developed a two-tired system of clerical celibacy and strictly monogamous lay marriage, with monastics separated into male and female houses--not over against pagan hedonism, but over against celibate Christian "extremists," whom they regarded as the real enemy.

This is why I love history; it scrambles your categories.

If conservative means preserving the past, then today's conservatives are holding on to a rather thin slice of it. Where are the conservatives who dare to proclaim the old time religion of: celibacy good, childlessness better, androgyny best?

Likewise, while critiques of empire are here, there and everywhere on the Christian left, I am unaware of any that make celibacy a core practice of imperial resistance. Today's feminists would liberate women from gender discrimination and for orgasm. But the feminists of old secured the former by turning their backs on the latter.

Neat, huh?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hiding Lorenz Hart

Last night at Guild Hall in East Hampton, we attended “Heart to Hart,” another performance in the American Musical Theatre series, hosted by Lee Davis. The program sung beautifully by the cabaret stars Anna Bergman and Malcolm Getz, highlighted the funny, sad, insightful lyrics of Lorenz (Larry) Hart, set to the music of Richard Rogers, his longtime collaborator. They wrote many of the great classics of the ‘20s and ‘30s, including “There's a Small Hotel,” “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Where Or When,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Spring Is Here,” “Falling In Love With Love,” “Sing For Your Supper,” “This Can't Be Love,” “I Didn't Know What Time It Was,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book,” and, of course, “Way Out West on West End Avenue.”
Lee Davis outlined Hart’s life in his usual amiable style, pointing out that Hart, as productive as he was, struggled all his adult life with alcohol, which led to long disappearances and erratic behavior that frustrated Rogers who had very regular work habits. Unfortunately, Davis didn’t mention the signal aspect of Hart’s life that helps explain much of that difficult, sad life: He was a closeted homosexual. As far as is known, Hart never formed a loving relationship with either a man or a woman. Although Davis said he never got the girl, it seems unlikely that he tried very hard. One of those “girls” was Vivian Siegel, the star of “Pal Joey,” a Rogers and Hart hit in 1940. She turned him down when he proposed, saying she already had a difficult husband.
Instead of women, Hart had sex with men, primarily compliant chorus boys and male prostitutes. However, according to “Musicals 101” (, “…Hart found little enjoyment in his homosexual liaisons. Terrified of intimacy, he would wait for sex partners to fall asleep, then creep out of bed and curl up on the floor of his bedroom closet to get some sleep.” And as “glbtq Arts” points out (, “…despite having written lyrics as witty as any sung on the Broadway stage before or since, Hart is best remembered for his songs of unfulfilled desire and failed romance.”
So, as with so many artists, his sad homosexual life was a major source of the art that has given us words to express our joy and our sadness. Too bad that Lee Davis hid this major aspect of Hart’s life. In 2010, we and those we love, including Larry Hart, don’t have to be in the closet.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Although ostensibly set in the late 1880s, in my mind, Alban Berg’s opera, “Lulu,” which I saw Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera, reflects, instead, the time when it was written: the 1920s and ‘30s in Austria and Germany. Its keyless, 12-tone, atonal music is compelling and conveys both the sexual and political freedom as well as the uncertainty, of the Weimar Republic, which was struggling with hyperinflation and widespread unemployment, leading often to poverty, misery and despair.
Lulu is representative of the period. An urchin abandoned on the street, she is taken in by Dr. Schön, a wealthy newspaper publisher, who raises her and eventually, as if by right, takes her as his mistress. Her beauty and allure soon bring her husbands, including Dr. Schön, and many lovers, even as she seems uninvolved with and unaffected by their passion. Also, Lulu and her circle, like so many during this giddy time, lived extravagantly, often speculating in risky stocks, hoping to keep their high life going. For example, during the first scene of the third act, set appropriately in a casino, many present have invested everything in a railroad stock. Just before it collapses, an investor, asking if it is safe, is told that, “We bankers know our business, dear.” This elicited a knowing laugh from the nearly full house.
Like the stock, Lulu’s life collapses when she escapes to London to evade a blackmailing pimp at the casino who threatens to tell the police about Lulu’s murder of Dr. Schön. With no money, she becomes a common whore and is herself murdered by Jack the Ripper, mourned only by her faithful lesbian admirer, Countess Geschwitz.
Lulu’s unhappy, wasted life reminds me of the paintings of rich women and the wretched street prostitutes of Germany painted by the great Expressionist, Otto Dix. The Neue Galerie in New York has mounted the first major retrospective of his work in North America. You can see these powerful paintings through August 30th, but you have only two more chances to see “Lulu”: Wednesday, the 12th at 8 PM and Saturday, the 15th, at 12:30 PM. The principal singers, Marlis Petersen as Lulu, James Morris as Dr. Schön, and Anne Sofie von Otter as the Countess Geschwitz are all superb, conveying the power and fascination of Lulu as she rises and falls. I urge you to see this wonderful work. You will never forget “Lulu.”
And to get a compelling picture of Wiemar’s sexual demimonde and the conditions that brought Hitler to power, read “A Trace of Smoke” by Rebecca Cantrell. In it, a female reporter in 1931 Berlin learns that her transvestite brother has been murdered, and she sets out to find out who did it. As she searches, we get a vivid picture of the desperation and corruption that bred Nazism. It will keep you reading to learn what happens.

Friday, April 30, 2010

“Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life”

“Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life” is a new DVD (2009) from the BBC and from their premiere naturalist, David Attenborough, who has produced many nature programs, all of which have amazing photography. This latest program also has stunning visuals, but it is a more intimate approach aiming at understanding the process by which Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection. At the center of this development was Darwin’s struggle with the religious outlook of most of the western world. This outlook not only maintained that God created each species separately, but also that humans were created to be above the natural world. Humans were created to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28) This passage has given license to all those who have exploited the world for selfish gain, leading most recently to the biggest oil spill in history.
Darwin not only put forth evidence that species changed with natural selection, but that humans were just as much a part of the natural world as were all the other organisms. Thus, he saw that his ideas would challenge not only given religious positions, but also the established hierarchy of humans above the animals and plants. None of this sat well with Britain’s very class conscious movers and shakers. So, Darwin’s continual bouts of illness may have had an organic basis, but they were likely exacerbated by his anxiety about the reception of his ideas.
Despite his anxiety, he was forced to publish his great book, “The Origin of Species,” sooner than he had planned as the result of receiving an essay from another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who presented the idea of evolution by natural selection independently. So, Darwin promptly wrote “Origin” with the general reader in mind, and, at its publication in 1859, as he predicted, it was not received well. Of course, we are still dealing with the objections of those who don’t share Darwin’s vision. This vision not only presented a world at odds with the biblical account, but, perhaps even more important, it placed humans among, not above, other organisms. The copious evidence he assembled in the book to support his ideas, as well as the mountains of evidence that has come forward since, has not changed the minds of those unwilling to be convinced by evidence. A recent instance of this has been the hearings of the Texas Board of Education, where evolution was presented as being against the established order of a “Christian nation.”
Attenborough does a masterly job of presenting, not only the facts on which the concept of evolution is based, but also Darwin’s struggle to bring this idea to the consciousness of the world. I hope you watch this program.

Monday, March 29, 2010

“After God: The Future of Religion”

Don Cupitt summarizes “After God: The Future of Religion” (1997. New York: BasicBooks) as follows: “Although the point is obvious, it remains curiously difficult to recognize that we made it all up. We evolved the entire syllabus. We have slowly evolved our own languages, our values, our systems of knowledge, our religions, and our world views. We evolved even our subjective consciousness, because the brightness, the consciousness, of conscious experience is a by-product of language.” (p 126)
It is curiously difficult for us to grasp this simple idea, because we still believe, or want to believe, in the Real. Plato with his ideal forms out there, not here, was the source of idea of the real, and, as Cupitt writes, “…Western philosophy was oriented mainly toward knowledge of the Real. Objective knowledge was priced high, with top standards of certainity, evidence, and lucidity; and the Real, in the sense of something other than ourselves and overwhelmingly bigger than ourselves, was something very powerful, beyond time and change.” (pp 39-40)
Of course, the most Real is God, but with the enlightenment and the work of “…critical philosophers, (Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Derrida), the old assumptions of Western or ‘platonic’ metaphysics have been brought to light and have crumbled away, so the credibility and even the very intelligibility of God have steadily faded away.” (p 62)
The platonic God has faded away in modern life because, as these philosophers made clear, our “real” God is a product of our language. It is our language that is “real” to us. Given that, Cupitt puts forward a new linguistic theory of religious practice and religious objects, as follows:
1. “As both philosophy and religion have in the past taught, there is indeed an unseen intelligible world, or spirit world, about us and within us.
2. The invisible world is the world of words and other symbols.
3. The entire supernatural world of religion is a mythical representation of the world of language.
4. Through the practice of its religion, a society represents to itself, and confirms, the varied ways in which its language builds its world.” (p XV)

But the major religious traditions are coming to an end. Some religious art may survive but not the doctrine. As Cupitt points out, most of Christian theology has been lost. Today, who can explain how Christ’s death made atonement for our sins or the nature of doctrine of the Trinity? (p 81) Most people haven’t got this vocabulary, and they certainly can’t use it to explain these ideas. Cupitt suggests that religion can still be useful, however, if we pick out certain religious concepts that we can use to express our religious ideas and feelings. He discusses three ideas that may be helpful: the eye of God, the blissful void, and solar living.
The belief in God can survive and can be defended if it is seen as involving a certain form of consciousness and practice of selfhood. The eye of God idea is the practice of looking at oneself and one’s world as if through the eye of God – that is, from the universal and ideal standpoint. Doing this heightens consciousness, provides a conscience, and helps in seeing oneself and others with a greater clarity of moral vision. (p 85) It’s a God’s eye view of the Golden Rule, and, as such, may help us make our behavior more humane and kinder.
In discussing the blissful void, Cupitt calls our attention to the cool sublime as exemplified by Barnett Newman’s “Day One” (1951-52) in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. It is an unframed plain scarlet rectangle about twelve feet tall and four feet wide, like a swimming pool. The eye dives in and the painting swallows the viewer up. As Newman declared, “The Sublime is Now.” Cupitt writes that it is “…the disappearance of the self into immanence, objectivity, and nothingness.” (p 88) He suggests that we use “…the Discipline of the void, the meditation upon the underlying universal emptiness and nothingness, as a background against which to set and see the flux of our life.” (p 89)
Solar living calls for an awareness of this continual flux. We are to live like the sun, giving our all all the time. The sun gives life by dying all the time, heedless of its own existence in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. “Solar ethics is a radically emotivist and expressionist reading of the ethics of Jesus.” (p 90)
These three ideas, Cupitt maintains, are “…what is most worth preserving from the old religions, and perhaps offer a starting point for the religion of the future. We give up the notion of religion as a system of reassuring supernatural beliefs; and we adopt instead the idea of religion as a toolkit.” (p 90)
This is, of course, just the barest outline of Cupitt’s engaging take on the state of religion today. I hope you seek out this short book (128 pages) and read for yourself. I have an extra copy that I will give to anyone who wants it. Just let me know.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Body Language: Jesus and Benedict XVI

In today’s “Times,” Frank Bruni concludes his article about the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church by writing, “The persistence of the child sexual abuse crisis, intensifying once again, suggests that the church’s defensive posture may in fact be a self-defeating one.” Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy week. The first reading for today describes a figure, from Isaiah’s Servant Songs, who does not assume a defensive posture: “I gave my back to those who stuck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6). The note in the insert containing this reading notes that “…Christians have often recognized the figure of Christ in these poems.” And indeed, the Gospel writers portray Jesus in his passion as being open to everything his accusers and tormenters heaped upon him. He went to his death without assuming a defensive posture.
Even as the church has lost credibility, the figure of Jesus still attracts many. They see in the Gospel portraits of him, a man who turns the other cheek, who is not violent in the face of hatred. We say this is not realistic, we must defend ourselves. And yet his example still beckons from our warfields and our torture chambers and in our hearts, even as we turn sorrowfully away from his example.
Mark Twain wrote that Christianity is the greatest religion; too bad it’s never been tried. Too bad for us; too bad for Benedict XVI.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“The Ghostwriter”: Polanski’s Thumb in the U.S.’s Eye

Last night, we saw Roman Polanski’s new film, “The Ghostwriter.” It operates on two levels, as an exciting, scary thriller, and as Polanski’s indictment of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Iraq war, and the C.I.A.’s role as enabler of torture.
Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a recent British Prime Minister, has retired to Martha’s Vineyard with his American wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). The ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired to revise and finish Lang’s memoirs after the unexpected drowning off the ferry of the first ghost, who was also one of Lang’s employees and a confidant. Lang is clearly meant to be seen as a Tony Blair stand-in, and his troubles and those of the ghostwriter soon increase as Lang is targeted by the International Court of Justice as a possible war criminal for aiding the C.I.A. in its rendition and torture of terrorism suspects. The ghostwriter soon finds that his predecessor had acquired damning evidence of the C.I.A.’s connection to Lang, but, of course, as soon as the ghostwriter learns this, his life is endangered by the C.I.A.’s shadowy thugs, who, on orders from higher-ups, wish to keep Lang’s nefarious activities secret.
Polanski’s unhappiness with America has, of course, been much in the news lately with his resistance to returning to the U.S. to be sentenced for his guilty plea of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. This movie seems to be his reaction to this experience of “the American Way of Life.” The movie indicates that the U.S.’s leading role on the world stage is enabled by war, murder, and torture. After watching this all-too-believable thriller, it’s hard not to agree with him. Indeed, even paranoids have enemies.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Emmaus: Key to the Church before Paul

I had a dream a while back about the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), where the disciples meet a stranger on the road as they walk to this village on Easter afternoon. When the stranger, whom they don’t recognize, asks them what they’re talking about, they sadly tell of the death of Jesus who they believed would redeem Israel. My dream was in the context of my talking to people about a fundamentalist tract that came in the mail addressed to me or “Current Resident.” The tract presented literal interpretations of Bible passages and was fishing for new adherents. I wouldn’t be one because, as I asked the people in the dream, “Why do people take the Bible literally?” The Emmaus story is certainly one that shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s too important for such a reductive interpretation. It seems to me that in shorthand it’s the history of the Church before Paul who was the first to write a part of the New Testament probably in the early 50s C.E. So for about 20 years from the death of Jesus in about 33 C.E. to I Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, we have no written records from the Church.
So what was happening with the followers of Jesus during these 20 plus years? Most likely, they were trying to understand their experience of him and going through the process of grieving, which has a number of stages, including, to start shock and denial, then pain and guilt, the stage apparently the disciples are in as the Emmaus story opens. The disciples’ sadness is a sign that they were probably moving beyond shock and denial into painful sadness about what didn’t happen, namely, Jesus’ political salvation of Israel from the Romans. So they remain under Roman rule, which is not good.
In the Emmaus story, after the disciples tell the stranger about the women’s tale of the empty tomb, he chides them for not understanding what the prophets have declared, namely, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” The passage continues: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (verses 26 and 27). This interpretation attributed to Jesus is what the late Michael Goulder pointed out was "haggadic midrash." Bishop Spong in his essay of March 18th pays tribute to Goulder and his work, particularly in two books, “Midrash and Lection in Matthew” and “The Evangelists' Calendar.” In these, Goulder argues that haggadic midrash took place over the many years after the crucifixion when the followers of Jesus spent time in the synagogue searching the Hebrew Scriptures to find Jewish stories about other people that could be retold about Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ followers felt that his spirit was guiding them to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death by interpreting the Scriptures in a new way. This is how the stranger was guiding them through scripture in the Emmaus story, which can be read as an illustration of haggadic midrash.
The revelation of Jesus to the disciples in the Emmaus meal is a sign of the central importance that the Eucharist must have had from early on as a way of experiencing the resurrected Jesus. As Jon D. Levenson has pointed out in “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life,” resurrection is a deeply Jewish idea that permeates the Hebrew Scriptures and the commentaries. It is through resurrection that the disciples shaped the last stage of their grief: acceptance and hope. So, just as death brings us sorrow, the recollection of the Resurrection can bring us acceptance and hope. Happy Easter!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bible Study


On her radio show, Dr Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, penned by a US resident, which was posted on the Internet. It's funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination... End of debate. It’s in the Bible - end of argument!

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how best to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination - Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wriggle room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan.
James M. Kauffman, Ed.D. Professor Emeritus,
Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
University of Virginia

Monday, January 4, 2010

“Reading Jesus”

I’ve just read “Reading Jesus” by Mary Gordon. It’s a readable, odd book. She’s obviously familiar with biblical scholarship, but because she values the Gospels as narratives and wants to read them as she imagines an ordinary reader might, she brings very little of that scholarship to her interpretations of the Gospel stories she chooses to write about. She wants them to be encountered as stories without, for the most part, considering the history of their composition. For example, she always writes about similar passages starting with Matthew and then going on through Mark, Luke, and John. She never points out that most scholars think the Mark was the basis for Matthew and Luke. She even writes at one point that Mark borrowed a passage from Matthew, even though Matthew was composed 10 to 15 years after Mark. Also, she seems to put all the sayings of Jesus on an equal footing without regard for which might be early and perhaps attributable to Jesus himself and which might be later and most likely the product of the communities that were struggling with conditions after the time of Jesus. She does discuss Raymond Brown’s work on the Gospel of John, because this Gospel lends itself most easily to anti-Semitic interpretation, and she struggles with the way these stories should be viewed today.
She seems to will herself to be naïve, as if she were still seven years old. Indeed much of the book is devoted to how she heard the stories when she was a child. She doesn’t bring much adult critical thinking to the stories, nor does she try to enter into post-critical naïveté, as she might when attending a play. However, she’s very good at pointing out that many of the stories upend our conventional notions of justice, as in the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Or how some of the stories seem cruel and inexplicable, as in the withering of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-25). And she points out, in a series of chapters, the many problems encountered in reading the Gospels: miracles, asceticism, perfectionism, apocalypticism, contradictions, conundrums, paradoxes, the anti-Judaism, and the issues around the possible divinity of Jesus. However, many of these problems are the result of her non-historical reading of the stories, which gives every story equal credence without regard to the historical circumstances of their composition.
I finished the book thinking that it is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of reading the Bible without a historical perspective. This intensifies all the problems she identifies. I think that if Gordon had read Don Cupitt’s “Jesus & Philosophy,” (See my blog post on this at: it might have helped her distinguish earlier Jesus sayings from later ones. If we do this, the outlines of a more coherent message might be attributed to Jesus.