In light of being abandoned two days before presenting my project, it seems that I grossly overprepared my presentation in fear of not having enough information to show or talk about. Ironically, the portion I typed to use as a speaking guide for the presentation is twice as long as the final essay itself, so I wanted to revise it and post here for anyone who might still be interested. Also attached is the powerpoint presentation.
There have been many significant questions floating around the class this semester about what we’ve been studying. They range in depth from questions such as “Why does it appear that there are two creation stories in genesis?” to “What messages can we find (and what do they mean) in the text about the nature of humanity and how the role of good/evil plays out in our lives?” There are many different aspects to our understanding of things like good and evil, but perhaps what are the most important when forming a well organized argument, opinion, conception, etc. on the matter are context and rhetoric. Consider this quote take from George Carlin; “Religion has never really had a problem with murder, more people have died in the name of God than for any other reason. If you take this to be at all true, you could easily claim that religion is the source of all evil. But we all know and accept this isn’t necessarily true, and whether or not you personally believe that, it raises important questions concerning our understanding of God and human nature. We find that context is one of the most important aspects of any statement or question, because it lays the foundation for where any further belief or argument might go, and this is especially significant when discussing religious texts like those we find in the OT. Now rhetoric is used with context to bring strength and clarity to the argument. One interesting way of thinking about rhetoric that I learned in a persuasive speaking class here at UK is “using any and all available means of persuasion in any given situation”. It can be the source of both beautiful arguments, and ugly misconceptions. Rhetoric is often used to “fluff” up written material like essays because, as we will see in a moment, it is used to simply fill space or add substance. Even talking about rhetoric can be somewhat futile, and I had to be careful when forming what I would say about this because using rhetoric in this manner can cause a seemingly circular statement or never ending loop of connecting words that can lead to me looking like a fool for using empty language to simply add substance, and if anyone has caught on in the last three or four seconds, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now.
But why is rhetoric important concerning the OT? Well let’s think about the OT in the broadest sense possible, that it is a “life guide” or “moral code” for us to abide by. Even though we were given the Ten Commandments towards the beginning of the OT, we have all these other books and stories that we use to interpret and represent this moral code, and many of them have strong and influential rhetoric that goes beyond what we can learn from the Ten Commandments. Now when composing this project, my biggest obstacle was sticking to a thesis or goal that I could build on throughout the presentation, yet not deviate too far from when trying to explain it to you. So if there is one question I hope to give some kind of answer for, it is the question of why humanity is so concerned with the problem of evil. And I have found that there is no one specific answer to this, instead the reason (whatever you believe it to be) changes for each of us over time based on how we go about trying to answer it.
Now the problem of evil seems to persist in our mind because we predicate it of something or someone based on the context in which that something or someone was introduced, and the speaker’s rhetoric here can be a very powerful and persuasive tool. This is especially true when someone has a strong opinion or position on something, because they are going to form their claim based on this, using rhetoric as “surface credibility”. What I mean by this is simply the apparent strength or intelligence of their argument. If we instead withhold any predication of good and evil, any assignment of right or wrong, and simply listen for the fact of the matter, we can dissect something without the risk of being manipulated to fall toward a certain disposition. We must not center our search for the source of evil on one interpretation of a text, the outcome of a war, or even what we believe the will of God to be, because this inner struggle, this search for truth, has been so deeply rooted in our nature, that we are willing to fight, to kill, to sacrifice, and to die just so that we can continue seeking answers that we may never achieve. So it is that curiosity itself a source of conflict, which then in turn is a significant source of evil in the world.
At the end of a long and tiring journey that Moses himself turned down because, (and I quote) “I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that you have spoken to your servant, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10), he is struck down after catching a glimpse of what he was striving toward for most of his life. The same mistake Moses makes not only seals his fate, but Aaron’s also as we see his death in the end of chapter twenty, and that is Moses’ striking of the rock at Meribah instead of ordering it to produce water as God commanded him to. But why, after such a long journey dealing with many impatient Israelites and suffering unimaginable hardships are they subjected to such a harsh punishment? Well God’s reason is apparent in Exodus 20:12 “But the lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them”. But I would like to emphasize the importance of this question, not only because not only is it essential in understanding the story of Moses, but because it develops into more broad questions that we ask of world events such as the disaster that hit Japan on March 11th. That question, in a broad sense, is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” So in the case of Moses, we have a straightforward reason for his punishment, but are left to call the magnitude of the punishment itself into question.
Have you ever heard someone say “everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan for everything”? Well to a certain extent with situations like that of Moses and Aaron, we can see how this may be the case, and disasters like the earthquake in Japan certainly fuel debate over this as well. But does chance play any role in this? First I would like to point the difference here between chance and luck, which is that luck is seen as having a certain degree, while chance seems to be the median for this scale. I have been taking an ancient philosophy course this semester and from our readings on Aristotle, we defined chance as “any purposive event that is neither normal, nor deliberative”. Now I bring this up because ascribing chance to something can be just as questionable as ascribing divine purpose to everything. For example, if I won the lottery tomorrow, we would assume it was by chance, (just based on how lotteries work) but if I were someone who had always believed I would win big someday, I could easily claim that God had planned on me being filthy rich, and if this is the case, it would be so because this belief has become so much a part of who I am that it will influence the direction of my perspective on things like chance and reason.
But when we make a comparison between two similar disasters like the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 to the Japanese earthquake earlier this year, we can see how chance and reason seem to be even more questionable than before. Whether or not it was chance, we know that Japan was better prepared, which is the reason they had less casualties. But then this raises another concern, while even though being much more prepared than Haiti, Japan now has to deal with the threat of multiple nuclear meltdowns across the country. Now, (for the sake of argument) if we include the potential devastation with the actual devastation and assume for a moment that only either one or the other would happen, we can see how luck becomes somewhat ambiguous.-If the Haitian earthquake didn’t happen, wouldn’t we say it is lucky that an earthquake hit Japan instead since the Japanese are better prepared? Yet couldn’t we also say it’s lucky that an earthquake would hit Haiti instead of Japan because, even though the actual loss of life was much greater, the potential loss of life when facing something as serious as multiple nuclear meltdowns could be in fact many, many times worse than that of Haiti? So as we battle to understand if there is reason to any of this, the idea that chance can play a role at all will cause us to question our own understanding of evil in the world.
So let’s look at the next example, Lot and his daughters. What, on the surface of this story, can you all tell would be considered evil? Well the obvious two are incest and deception. But just as we know that there are two sides to the debate over whether Moses’ death was deserved or not, we must consider the perspective that Lot’s daughters had in the situation. By far the most interesting passage from this story, (at least in my opinion) is Genesis 19:31; “And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the ways of all the world”. I found the rhetoric in this passage to be interesting because it is not only a unique way to refer their concern for the survival of the human race, but the words “in the ways of all the world” seem to refer to reproduction as something that is shared by all life. Now we all know what they mean by this, and even though we understand why they thought it was right to deceive their father and essentially rape him, we can never truly have that perspective for ourselves, which brings me back to the idea of context and rhetoric: no matter what version of the bible you read, no matter who tells you this story and no matter how they go about telling you, you will never know what is was like to feel what those two women fealt.
Now incest is obviously wrong, and there are actually biological mechanisms in our brain that steer us away from it, (that’s why we aren’t attracted to our siblings, parents, etc.) but let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, or at least attempt to, and think, what would I do if I and my father/mother were the only people left on the planet to ensure the continuity of humanity? Would incest still be evil then? Would it be good or evil to decide against saving what is probably the smartest and most unique creature that has ever walked on this planet just because I have been taught that incest is wrong? Now we must be careful with this question, because it is one of those “on the fence” sort of questions where either side can be argued for greatly if approached from a particular perspective. What I mean by that is this; if I were to say that yes I would sleep with my own mother to save the human race, you all would look at me like I was crazy, or that I was the poster child of those jokes we occasionally here about Kentuckians being people who screw their cousins, yet deep down you all know it’s not a decision I would be proud of, and that even making a decision like this could drive someone insane. So for Lot’s daughters, this is a decision that will probably haunt them for the rest of their lives. It’s a sacrifice that we’re all happy that we’ll probably never have to make. But let’s take a look at this from a fundamentalist point of view for a moment, as if the bible was actually a history book and everything really happened. Let’s say they really were the last three people alive as the two girls believed. It would be contradictory for anyone to condemn those actions since if they hadn’t slept with their father, you wouldn’t be here to condemn them in the first place.
Now as far as bringing this into the context of today, we can point to a big one, World War II. The most important thing to understand here is the perspective that a German citizen had during these dark times. There is an interesting documentary on the history channel about the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and how they convinced the German citizens to essentially worship Hitler. Unfortunately I was unable to find any information on this documentary, which pissed me off because it had a lot of interesting information about the war. They had videos that showed everything from what it was like to see the rejection, condemnation, and eventual attack and imprisonment of communists and Jews that lived in Germany at the time of the rise, to what it was like to be someone our age and not have any association with the war at all. But anyways, the point is that as Hitler rose to power, he lied to the german people, and staged events such as an attack by Poland on one of the German cities near the border, to use as justification for war.
One big controversy today similar to that is 9/11. As soon as it happened, people were throwing all these conspiracy theories around that the government orchestrated the whole attack as justification for going to war in the middle-east. Whether or not you believe it was a conspiracy or not, it just goes to show that there will always be debate over the perpetration of events that are used to justify war. Now as we all may know, Hitler had the people poisoned with confidence, believing they were the master race and that everyone else just didn’t belong. Not many people know that the British actually flew secret missions in the night over German cities like Berlin dropping pamphlets warning the German citizens of Hitler’s true intentions and of what was to come. Also, the Nazis themselves had plenty of personal justification for war. There has been a lot of speculation over the years as to their motivation for the invasions and Hitler’s “Final Solution” (aside from ensuring the Aryan race as the dominant one and the extermination of the Jewish people), and many point to the technologies the Nazis were pursuing. Now whether you believe they discovered how to travel through time or that they were in contact with aliens who helped them develop things like their rocket technology is up to you, but one thing is certain, for millions of people living in Germany at the time, they were pursuing a good outcome and were fighting off a world full of evil. Hitler even broadened the age of military involvement toward the end when Germany’s defeat was inevitable, enlisting young boys and old men as is last line of defense, telling them it was their duty and honor to fight for their country, and their privilege to die for it.
I want to show you all a few seconds of this video that was leaked by the wiki-leaks website a little while ago. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cx3_ynHjL-M) This is a US chopper engaging a group of people in Iraq. Now the video itself is talking about these two men that are supposedly journalists, Saeed and Namir, who are, as whoever posted this video probably wants to point out, were wrongfully attacked and killed by the US military. Now I can’t verify the validity of this video, and whether or not it is real isn’t important here but instead, the notion that our military would attack and kill innocent civilians. When I first saw this video, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach and it immediately raised questions in my mind about the actions and intentions our military has in places like this. This just goes to show that, even though we live in a country that we see as a force for good in the world, we must never turn a blind eye to the notion that our leaders would lie to us. Now just think about the German people who were told that everything their country was fighting for was good and just must have thought the minute they learned of the atrocities their leader was responsible for.
But why is this significant to understanding why we seem to be concerned with the problem of evil in the world? Well in constructing a belief of perspective on something, we must always withhold our judgments until we have seen the story through every perspective. And even then, we see that in most cases it is still immensely difficult to settle on one or the other, because while what happened in WWII was obviously an evil thing, everyone strives toward what they believe is the ultimate good and no one knowingly pursues what they believe to be evil. It is, as we reiterate time and time again, a matter of perspective. Hitler’s perception of good and evil was obviously wrong, but think, if he was here today, and was raised here in America, with the beliefs and values that we have grown up with, imagine what someone as motivated as him could accomplish. Now I want to be careful here not to appear to justify anything Hitler did, but simply point out that good and evil have more reality to the individual than they do to the society. Starting a second world war wasn’t seen in society as something that was good, but it was to Hitler, and he took this belief to the podium and used “all his available means of persuasion” to convince the german people of the same.
Our last two examples are Job, and Abraham. I chose to compare the two of these because the messages here about good and evil can be seen as very different, and this just shows that the deeper we try and go to understand something, the more complicated it gets, and also the farther we drift from being able to accurately put into words what we are formulating in our minds. For example, how would you go about answering me if I asked you to give me a uniquely generic way of being broadly specific about OT theodicy? This may seem like a pretty dumb question, but it just goes to show that our language allows for contradictions like this to take shape. This leads us to a unique obstacle, that as we dive deeper into the investigation of these questions and broaden our search for the answers, it just becomes increasingly difficult to make sense of it all. This is ironic because it seems we have created this never-ending problem of trying to answer these questions and, as one of my philosophy teachers put it a few weeks ago, the problem is that we have problems.
Now the context in which God commands Abraham to kill his son is fairly short like that of Moses and Lot, but the important aspects of Job’s story seem to be spread out more throughout the text. We all know how these two stories play out, how Job is plagued with all these disasters and how Abraham was stopped by an angel immediately before killing his son Isaac at the command of God. Insofar as they both are surprised with their respective hardships, it seems that they both initially have no inclination to question them. This is where they start to differ. Abraham took his faith to the end and actually attempted to go through with killing his son Isaac as God commanded, where as Job seems to have given up his faith in the wake of all the devastation he is experiencing. But, we shouldn’t view these stories with equal criticism, because these are two very different circumstances. On one side, we have a man who is commanded by God to sacrifice something he loves, and on the other side we have a man whose entire world is destroyed.
But let’s take another moment to think about how they, and we, would react to these situations. Abraham did not call God into question at all, so we can assume he was banking on their being a reason to all of this rather than it being chance since God pretty much told him what was going to happen. If he didn’t believe there was a reason, but instead that this was just an evil action on God’s part, he probably would have had some objection. Now Job on the other hand is a different story and again, we read this story in one particular light, without any knowledge of what it really felt like to be in that situation. One thing is for sure though, this is happening all over the world today, and if we truly want to understand what it is like to experience something like this, we must consider people like the victims of the recent tornadoes that have been tearing through the southern part of the country, or look at the situation the Japanese people are facing. Just as Job was stripped of his family, his home, and his health, there are people in Japan who watch their families and homes get carried away by a tsunami, and then are poisoned by the leaking radiation of dangerously unstable nuclear reactors.
These all seem eerily similar to Job’s plight. But the most important thing to note about Job and Abraham is that they both had a good ending. And when comparing two stories like these to understand why we must remain in strong faith, it is important to note we have one exemplar of failing to keep the faith and one who kept it. This leads me to point out the importance of metaphors like seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty because no matter what the hardships may be or how long they stay with us, the perspective we choose to take one them will determine the strength of our faith. It is important to note here as well the importance of having perseverance to help keep us strong when faith alone cannot. But what does this mean? Well it’s simple, and it is essentially the conclusion to which I am trying to get at, which is that perseverance pulls through the forest of chance, so that we can use faith to create our own meaning, purpose, or reason that we then use to guide ourselves down the right path.
Something else I would like to point out is the connection we can make between the messages found in the Old Testament and the many different philosophies around the world. The important thing to note about this is that different languages give rise to entirely different ways of thinking. Perhaps the most interesting case would be Chinese mandarin because while we have 26 letters in English, there are thousands of symbols that make up their language, and the fact that someone like the philosopher Plotinus, while separated from these Asian philosophers by hundreds of years and thousands of miles can come to the same conclusions about reality, such as the idea of God being “self thinking thought”, or that thinking is directly identified with being. We may not see concepts like directly in the Bible itself, but the one thing I have learned about the bible through this course that I had never thought about before is that everything we read in every context we read it in can be seen as a metaphor for the personal struggles we go through and that deep down, the Old Testament is just as significant philosophically as it is religiously. For example, the dialogue we see in the book of Job where his friends essentially accuse him of doing something that angers God to account for the disasters he is experiencing can be seen as a metaphor for the questions he is asking himself and the inner struggles he goes through to remain in strong faith.
One interesting concept I found in Asian philosophy is that of enlightenment. Now even though it may not seem particularly relevant, the Old Testament is broad enough that we can make connections, for example I believe the fall of man from the Garden of Eden can be seen as mirroring the pathway to enlightenment we see in Buddhist thought.
God created the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve but gave them the one order to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We can see here that this will inevitably doom them, pointing out once again that curiosity is so engrained in our nature that it will eventually cause us to make mistakes like this. We know that before eating the fruit, neither of them was ashamed to be naked, but afterwards, “the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). They hid from God after this, but were expelled from the garden when he found them. I would like to use a few passages from “Moon in a dewdrop” written by Zen master Dogen, one of the more well known Buddhist philosophers, to illustrate how enlightenment can be seen as the pathway back to the garden. First, he says in his “body and mind study of the way”, “Do not get caught up in discussion of delusion or enlightenment, good or bad. Do not stay in the realm of wrong or right, true or false.” This discussion or realm that he talks about here can be seen as the knowledge attained through eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He says at another point in here, “Even if you do not know it, if you arouse the thought of enlightenment, you will move forward on the way of enlightenment.” Next, we move to his “Guidelines for studying the way” where he says “You should know that arousing practice in the midst of delusion, you attain realization before you recognize it”. Similarly, in his “Only Buddha and Buddha” he says “When you realize Buddha-dharma, you do not think, this is realization just as I expected. Even if you think so, realization invariably differs from your expectation. Realization is not like your conception of it.” Next we move to his “On the endeavor of the way”, where he says “now the realm of all buddhas is inconceivable, it cannot be reached by consciousness.” Consciousness here, like the discussion or realm previously mentioned, can be attributed to the knowledge they achieved from the tree of knowledge. Finally, we see in his “Actualizing the fundamental point, that he says “Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. It’s appearance is beyond your knowledge.” This quote, more specifically the latter part, represents the portion of time that Adam and Eve spent in the garden before they ate of the tree of knowledge, before they realized they were naked.
Now in light of everything we’ve seen thus so far, I would like to refer you to this video. It may not seem relevant to this project or to the Old Testament in any particular way, but I believe that through what we have discussed here about the influence our perceptions have on our understanding, and how the ambiguity of messages in the bible leads us to note that there is always a way to connect two things that might seem contradictory, we can understand better the problem of not being able to accurately put into words what we are formulating in our minds about questions like why we are so concerned with the nature of evil. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dpRPTwsKJs
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