Fraser Code, Physicist
Transcripts of a "Bible Seminar for the 21st Century".
Click here to read the Archived Blog for this Seminar
Table of the Transcripts of Seminar Contents and Subsequent Feedback
September 8 and 13, 2015
Northrop Frye's Biblical Perspective
October 13 and 18, 2015
Some suggested readings and viewings
The Birth of the Messiah
December 8, 2015
January 12 and 17, 2016
The Book of Job
February 9 and 14, 2016
The Joy of Easter: An Introduction to Memes.
March 8 and 13, 2016.
Images of Heaven and Hell (Perfection and Imperfection)
April 17, 2016 ONLY
Biblical Faith and Scientific Culture
May 10 and 15, 2016
First Session: Introduction
September 8 and 13, 2015.
What is the Bible? Is it the sacred revealed word of God, or is it a collection of “old stories and myths”? These seminars will be based on the way I have interpreted the Christian Bible for a number of years, without reference to superstition or the supernatural.
There are various types of religious literature in the world. Some are oral traditions, and some are written. Some written forms can survive only in the original language, while others flourish in various translations. Some claim to be divinely inspired, while others are written by a human community with a new or continuing religious tradition. The study of comparative religions can often find evidence of an influence on, or a relationship between, separate religious traditions. The story of the flood in the Babylonian and earlier Sumerian versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a prime example of preceding or contemporary forms of the flood of Noah.
The approach used in this Seminar on the Christian Bible will be that of “Critical Thinking” as taught in most western universities.
I begin with some views of the former University Professor and English Critic as well as an ordained United Church of Canada Minister, Northrop Frye, who has described himself as a “Professional Rhetorician”.
Frye’s 1991 book entitled “The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion” deals with the ambiguities of myths and words in the Christian Bible.
Frye asserts that “myths are the functional units of human society, even when they are absurd myths” (Double Vision, page 4). What is a myth? – He answers this by example: a myth is a story like the one of St. George saving a fair Maiden from a Dragon. There are three parts to the myth: the Hero who saves, the Party in distress, and the demonized Villain. Other versions of this myth exist in politics: such as the West saving People’s lives from the terror of ISIS in 2015. The details of the myth may change over time (e.g. in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, there was Socialism saving Democracy from the evils of Fascism).
Northrop ("Norrie") Frye is famous for his undergraduate lectures on “The Bible and English Literature”. The first lecture of the 1980-81 version of this 25 lecture course is available at the University of Toronto’s Heritage website http://heritage.utoronto.ca/content/bible-and-english-literature-northrop-frye-full-lecture-1 . The other lectures have very similar links. Frye’s approach to the Christian Bible is that has both a unity of narrative (stories) throughout, as well as a unity of images (the hill, the valley, the city, the tree, the river, the sea etc.).
Some highlights of this first lecture were summarized in the seminar, but not repeated in this transcript because the full lecture with its transcript and notes are on line at the link given in the previous paragraph.
Although the Bible has been translated many times, some words of the original Hebrew have interesting meanings. The word for ‘image’ (tseh’-lem) can mean a shadow, phantom, or illusion (as in Gen 1-27 "So God created man in his own image…"). However, the English phrase 'graven image' is actually just one Hebrew word, peh’-sel, meaning an idol, a carved, sculpted or cast statue.
Another important biblical word is ‘soul’, first mentioned in Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground , and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” The Hebrew word for soul, nephesh, means ‘that which breathes’, ‘the breathing substance or being’, ‘the soul’, ‘the inner being of man’. Note there is nothing spooky associated with nephesh. Here it does not claim that the soul is the immortal part of the body (as asserted by Socrates and Plato).
Going back to the creation stories in Genesis (there are fragments of several of these), after Adam and Eve were created as representatives of the beginnings of mankind, their two sons, first Cain, and then Abel had different occupations. Cain was a ‘tiller of the soil’ (a newfangled farmer) but Abel was a shepherd, a traditional Mesopotamian rancher. So there was a cultural conflict behind the first recorded murder – a modern farmer kills the more traditional rancher over land disputes. (Actually, in Genesis, it is caused by differences in the acceptability of their burnt offerings, e.g., grain and fruit are not as acceptable as meat to God.) To stress the local aspect of the act of creation, Cain moves away from the outskirts of Eden, marries, has a son, and builds a city (or town) to live in. It is interesting that he did not build a nomadic encampment because he was a farmer, and built a permanent town near the fields he must have owned or worked upon.
I will make another comment about God and man in Genesis. Since mankind is but a pale shadow of God’s full glory, he originally cannot look directly at God, or repeat his true name without the fear of death. Indeed, there are modern Jewish traditions that refer to the Almighty in written English as G-d.
In conclusion, remember that the entire Christian Bible was composed, edited (and re-edited) and finally assembled as an entirety long before the advent of the scientific method, which has had such a profound impact on the knowledge we have of the physical, social, life and medical sciences. (There will be a separate discussion of the relation between science and the bible in a later seminar.) Remember that the Bible has a literary structure involving stories, parables, prophesy, poetry, and end-time apocalypses. The Bible is not a modern journalist’s record of history. To me, the Christian Bible is a record and description of the Christian religious tradition – the stories of mortal men who believe in a transcendent creator God, whose nature is eventually revealed in the Christian concept of the Trinity (which, curiously, is never mentioned in the King James Bible.)
Feedback from the First Session:
Sentient animals are not mentioned in the Bible, man’s dominion over creation is mentioned, but mankind’s responsibility for maintaining the ecology of the globe is not emphasized.
What does it mean by the Spirit of God as in Genesis 1:2 when the Spirit of God moved across the face of the waters? Linguistically, the Hebrew word for spirit is ru’-akh, which has the meanings of wind, breath, mind, and spirit.
What is the spirit world, or the place of departed spirits? We have no direct information communicated to us from the dead. When did the concept of the “immortal soul” arise in human history? A rhetorical polemic that it arose outside of the Bible can be found at the web link - http://www.present-truth.org/9-Beyond/Is%20Your%20Soul%20Immortal.pdf
Wouldn’t it be nice if Heaven were to be the place where we will find out all the answers to the many questions of history?
Note that modern stories and novels mean different things to different people, including even the author, who may not have thought of certain ideas that others find in his story.
If the Christian Bible has a narrative rhetorical structure, then what does it say about the underlying reality of God?
One of the strengths of faith in the United Church of Canada is our ability to question religious ideas and traditions.
There was some discussion on the relationship of Christianity to other religions, such as the "Church of Christ, Scientist", founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy after she wrote "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" (1875). Also, the "Book of Mormon", which was published by Joseph Smith in 1830. Reference was also made to the influence on Hebrew and Christian cultures by the Zoroastrian faith, traditionally founded in Persia 3500 years ago by the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster).
The role of women in the Church was noted to have been strong in the days of early Christianity, diminishing significantly following Constantine and his adoption of Christianity as his official imperial religion for Rome and Byzantium, but was now increasing strongly in some contemporary denominations of the Church.
The importance of archetypes (i.e., standard models) and symbols in the Bible, especially in the Book of Revelations, was noted. Reference will be made later in this seminar to Frye's discussions of apocalyptic Biblical symbolism in his video lectures.
Second Session: Northrop Frye's Biblical Perspective October 13 and 18, 2015.
Northrop Frye was born July 14 1912 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, into a Methodist family, and was probably exposed to strong Christian ideas at a young age. He went to school in Moncton, New Brunswick, where he proved to be an excellent student. But by his mid-teens, he had totally rejected everything to do with religious fundamentalism. Later, he learned to type in a business studies course in Moncton, and came to Toronto to compete in an Underwood-sponsored typing contest, where he was one of the prizewinners. He then enrolled as an undergraduate at Victoria College (U of T) and completed studies as the top student in Philosophy and English in 1933. Afterwards, he studied Theology at Emmanuel College, and became an ordained Minister in the newly formed United Church of Canada in 1936. Attracted to following the career of an academic, he obtained his M.A. at Merton College, Oxford, and returned to Victoria as a lecturer in the Department of English in 1939.
A more complete biography of him can be found here at the Victoria College Library website. Frye’s undergraduate lectures on the Bible and English Literature are the prime reference for this Bible Seminar, and are directed toward the exploration of myths and metaphors rather than religious dogma.
On the subject of Myth and Metaphor, Frye has said “Myth says two things to us at once: “this happened” and “this cannot have happened in precisely this way.” Similarly, metaphor says to us “A is B,” two things are the same thing, and at the same time it conveys the meaning “A is clearly not B, and no one could be fool enough to think it was.” (p 230, The Northrop Frye Quote Book, Compiled by John Robert Columbo, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2014).
I think that the above quote illustrates what Frye has called “the double vision of language”.
I personally think that behind some ancient myths there is a “pinch” of reality and history. For example, the “Golden Fleece” in the ancient Greek myth of 'Jason and the Argonauts', probably refers to the panning for gold using stretched sheepskin trays in the newly colonized rivers of the Black Sea. See the web references for Jason and the Golden Fleece .
Referring to a discussion question in Session 1 of this Seminar (Sept 8/13, 2015) about comparative religions and belief: belief often lies ahead of verification. “I choose to believe in God” or “I choose not to believe in a God”. So how do we responsibly determine what we “should” believe in? (There is no choice – not to believe in God is in itself a philosophical “belief”). Two principles I use for assessing what we chose to do is (a) “discernment” (by their fruits you shall know them) and (b) “critical thinking”. There are many choices that are easily rejected: for example, L. Ron Hubbard’s book “Dianetics” and the religion of Scientology; New age blends of Christianity and Asian Religions or Asian Philosophy where the leaders become rich; TV evangelists who lead double lives (do as I say (preach) and not do as I do (drive a Rolls Royce), etc. Is a belief static for all time ahead, or is it a living changing working hypothesis? The topic of belief is beyond the scope of the literary approach to the Bible that we are taking, following the footsteps of Frye. But our beliefs may change, as our insights about God may change, as we learn and grow. So I stress the need for using a flexible set of working hypotheses, whenever we discuss the subject of belief.
Related to the concept of belief are the concepts of prayer and worship. The Biblical Hebrew and Greek words for “to pray” and “prayer” appear to be linked in context with the word for “worship”. (to pray is to make a request (to a person, or to God), or to utter a statement of request or praise in public worship). In terms of evangelical beliefs, we often see references to the “power of prayer” with some implication of supernatural intervention being invoked. But do we also hear references to the “power of worship”, and do the rites of worship convey supernatural interventions can and do occur? My personal approach is to deny that anything supernatural (numinous) or magical is associated the life of a religious person, either now, or in the past or in the future.
The content of Frye’s first four video lectures were discussed, and participants in the seminar can find comments and summaries of the lectures in Table 1 located below this session's discussion topics that was prepared for the reading and viewing Session in November.
Feedback from the Second Session:
There was considerable discussion on the varieties of religious or spiritual experiences and their relationship to physical “reality”. A story was told of a pastor whose young daughter died, and at her funeral he had a vision of her being held in the arms of Jesus when he looked toward the altar. What was the nature of such a vision? Was it a "true" spiritual experience, or was it produced within the pastor's grieving brain?
The contributions of poetry to the Bible were mentioned, in addition to stories, parables, and histories and biographies.
Several levels of interpretation of the story of Jesus’ healing of blind Bartimaeus were discussed, as an example of a curable eye infection, or the symbolic blindness of Israel to the nature of God, which could be cured by the teachings of Jesus..
What are angels, such as the ones seen at the tomb on the original Easter Sunday? Do they have a spiritual reality, or are they literary symbols and related constructs of the human imagination? (refer to Frye's video lecture #7 at the general link http://heritage.utoronto.ca/northropfryelectures ). Frye in his lecture says that in the Bible, angels are only messengers, they are not saints or divinities or lesser gods to worship.
What is the meaning of the Resurrection in the Christian New Testament? (See Frye's video lecture #11).
There was also some discussion on proving or disproving the existence of supernatural events by scientific methods. Reference was made to the Parapsychology research by J.B. Rhine (1895 - 1980) at Duke University from the mid 1930s to the 1960s. Rhine's results on ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) were controversial, as they were not duplicated by others. Some researchers into ESP reported to an American Physical Society meeting in the late 1960s that the the longer the experiments were observed, and the more data was collected on these ESP experiments, the smaller the positive signals became until they merged with random experimental noise. This contradicted the scientific reality of ESP communications.
A more recent abstract from the Bulletin of the American Physical Society states:
Abstract ID: BAPS.2009.TSS.M1.6
Abstract: M1.00006 : A Course in Science and Pseudoscience
11:00 AM–11:12 AM
Author: Richard Taylor (The Hockaday School)
A new course at Hockaday, Science and Pseudoscience, examines what we know, how we know it, and why we get fooled so often and so easily. This is a course in which we measure things we thought we understood and use statistical analysis to test our understanding. We investigate extraordinary claims through the methods of science, asking what makes a good scientific theory, and what makes scientific evidence. We examine urban myths, legends, bad science, medical quackery, and plain old hoaxes. We analyze claims of UFOs, cold fusion, astrology, structure-altered water, apricot pit cures, phlogiston and N-rays, phrenology and orgonomy, ghosts, telekinesis, crop circles and the Bermuda Triangle -- some may be true, some are plainly false, and some we're not really sure of. We develop equipment and scientific techniques to investigate extra-sensory perception, precognition, and EM disturbances.
There was some discussion of the Christian attitude towards life on planets in other parts of the galaxy or elsewhere in the visible universe. Note that the Vatican, since a Pontifical conference in November 2009, now recognizes extraterrestrial life as a rational possibility. But it is not referenced to in the Christian Bible, nor even is the possibility of intelligence (sentience) being found in terrestrial animals such as whales, porpoises and some higher apes. Certainly, the long distances between stars that have suitable planets makes communication with other life forms in the galaxy a huge problem.
It was acknowledged that although our scientific achievements were highly sophisticated, in future there would be new facts and theories uncovered that were beyond our present understanding. We must be modest with our present knowledge, and accept there are issues that we simply cannot understand at present, and not be bothered by this situation of incomplete information.
Over the course of time, it was discussed that there have been many apocalyptic visions of "End Times", especially by U.S. fundamentalists convinced of the reality of the rapture. One more infamous example, is "The Late Great Planet Earth" by Hal Lindsey with Carole C. Carson, first published in 1970, and predicting troubled times in the future. It was followed by a 1981 book entitled "The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon" in which he predicted that the 1980s could possible be the last decade in history as we know it. Born in November 1929, he is now 85, and has survived his many predictions of doomsday for the unsaved. Such end-times thinking was also common when the biblical Book of Revelation was written by St. John the Divine.
The discussion then touched on the history of messianic thought in Judaism, and a very informative article can be found on Wikipedia at this link: Jewish Messianism .
Finally there was a discussion on the reality of the story of Jonah and the "whale", and his refusal of God's call to preach to Nineveh. Instead he fled by boat to Tarshish (probably in the opposite direction to Nineveh). Afterwards Jonah sails into a huge storm in the ocean, and told the crew he was fleeing from God. After trying everything to keep afloat, the crew threw Jonah overboard to calm the seas stirred up, so they thought, by the wrath of God. However, the sea is always symbolic of chaos and uncertainty in the Bible. And we read in Jon 1:17 "Now the LORD had prepared a(n unspecified) great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights". It was noted by the participants that the story does not make biological sense. Symbolically, Jonah probably got into a great depression by trying to run away from God, and this depression "swallowed him up" completely for a while (3 days and 3 nights). So next Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish Jon 2:1 "Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly," and eventually Jon 2:10 "And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land." Then Jonah travels 3 days to Nineveh and preaches repentance and saves the city. The story goes on, and Nineveh is saved, but Jonah is angry about the outcome. It's a great story to read, but it is just a story, and not a newspaper account. And it teaches lessons about how we live when God urges us to do something that we find distasteful - we get in deep trouble... Remember the story comes from a desert people who believe in one Creator God, and have an aversion to sea travel. So the story is more important as a teaching tool, then as a literally true report, and is quite contrary to the biological consequences of being swallowed by a fish, no matter how big.
In most of Frye’s writings and teachings, the issue of his own personal beliefs seems to be left without much direct attention. If you persist in viewing more of his lectures, his own ideas will begin to emerge clearly.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Reading and viewing suggestions for the November break.
We are fortunate that the 1980-81 version of Northrop Frye's undergraduate lectures (delivered when he was 68) exist in video and transcript archives on the heritage website of the University of Toronto. The link to a thumbnail index of all 25 of these is given by http://heritage.utoronto.ca/northropfryelectures .
Table 1. Themes of Frye's first six video Lectures
Why the course was developed, approaches to the Bible and its translations, King James version to be read aloud
The shape of the Bible, The series of Israel's rising and falling from redemptions to disasters
Images often repeated in the Bible: Paradise, Trees and Water
Images often repeated in the Bible: Paradise, Trees and Water
Sexual imagery: the Bride and Bridegroom and their Demonic counterparts
Pastoral and Agricultural images (ranching and farming, etc)
Table 2. Contents of the book "The Double Vision"
1. The Double Vision of Language p 3
The Whirligig of Time, 1925 - 90 p 3
Primitive and Mature Societies p 7
The Crisis in Language p 14
2. The Double Vision of Nature p 22
Natural and Human Societies p22
Criticism and Civilization p 28
The Redemption of Nature p 34
3. The Double Vision of Time p 40
Space and Time p 40
Time and History p 46
Time and Education p 52
4. The Double Vision of God p 59
Gods and God p 59
Hebraic and Hellenic Traditions p 65
Metaphorical Literalism p 69
The Humanized God p 74
Themes of Frye's remaining video Lectures.
Lecture 7 THE WORLD OF ANGELS
Lecture 8 THE HERO FROM ACROSS THE SEA
Lecture 9 THE DOUBLE MIRROR: EXODUS AND THE GOSPEL
Lecture 10 THE METAPHOR OF KINGSHIP
Lecture 11 KING, PRIEST AND PROPHET
(Plato's immortality of soul vs the Christian resurrection into a spiritual body)
Lecture 12 THE QUESTION OF PRIMOGENITURE (rights of firstborn)
Lecture 13 REVELATION: AFTER THE EGO DISAPPEARS
Lecture 14 GENESIS: IN THE BEGINNING
Lecture 15 EXODUS: A REVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
Lecture 16 LAW: ORDERING A SOCIETY
Lecture 17 WISDOM: THE PROVERBS
Lecture 18 WISDOM: PLAYING BEFORE GOD (Part 1) ECCLESIASTES: VANITY OF VANITIES (Part 2)
Lecture 19 (No Transcript Available)
Lecture 20 JOB: A TEST
Lecture 21 JOB AND THE QUESTION OF TRAGEDY
Lecture 22 JOB AND RESTORED HUMANITY
Lecture 23 THE LANGUAGE OF PROCLAMATION: STYLE AND RHYTHM IN THE BIBLE
Lecture 24 REVELATION: REMOVING THE VEIL
Lecture 25 CONCLUSION: THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
(Remember: monthly Bible Seminars begin again Tuesday Dec 8 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday Dec 13 at noon.)
Third Session: Outline of the Book
"The Birth of the Messiah"
by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Ph.D.
Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 only.
Father Raymond Brown was an eminent Catholic Theologian of the late 20th century. According to one source, the letters S.S. indicate the Society of St. Sulpice (the Sulpicians, outside of France). His book, the Birth of the Messiah is summarized on the web at the link www.stjohnadulted.org/BirthMessiah2.PDF .
The purpose of discussing this summary is to provide a seasonal illustration of the differing ways the story of Jesus' birth is told in the four gospels of the New Testament. The comparisons of the nativity story in the gospels of Matthew and Luke bear sharp contrast with the introductions to Jesus' life and teachings given in the gospels of Mark and John. To mention the approach taken by Northrop Frye to the Bible as Literature, the nativity stories found in Matthew and Luke are interesting because of their differences. They also add story material that does not exist in Mark and John, and convey the message that Jesus was clearly the Son of God, even at the moment of his birth.
Because the summary has been posted on the web in a portable document format (.pdf) file, I shall not repeat it, but give the link again here for you to follow on your own computer. You are encouraged to read and re-read the 55 slides in this file.
Feedback from the Third Session:
The seminar's participants were surprised, when they realized the extent of the differences between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. But in literary terms, these two versions don't contradict each other. Rather, they both emphasize the theological point that Jesus IS the true Son of God from the very moment of his conception and birth. This is significant because of the attacks against Jesus "good name" and the worth of his ministry that were circulated by his enemies both during his life and after his crucifixion.
Brown asserts that Matthew's version of the aftermath of the nativity is closely modeled after the Old Testament (O.T.) story of Pharaoh's attempt to kill Moses, and that Luke's version resembles the O.T. stories of Samuel as a boy.. The close parallel between the Old and New Testament sections of the Christian Bible is established by these Nativity stories, in a way that is highly deliberate. Most participants had not noticed the high degree of parallelism in these gospels.
The story of the birth and the life of Jesus shortly afterwards as a boy in Luke's gospel includes many details that establish that the birth and life of Jesus is a fulfillment of the O.T. "Law and the Prophets". It is not surprising that his story begins with the proclamation of the ministry of John the Baptist (by Zechariah and Elizabeth), and ends with the proclamation of the ministry of Jesus (by Simeon and Anna). These proclamations form the four most important early hymns (canticles) of the early Christian Church. Zechariah's "Benedictus" is parallel to Simeon's "Nunc Dimittis", while Elizabeth's "Magnificat" is parallel to Anna's "Gloria in Excelsis". So parallelism exists both within the New Testament (N.T.) itself, as well as between the O.T. and the N.T.
Note also that the boyhood stories of famous men in world history and world religions are often parallel to the story of the boyhood years of Jesus in the Christian Bible.
Does this type of Biblical criticism (based on critical thinking) destroy the type of faith that is often associated with a simpler, more literal interpretation of scripture as the "Word of God"? Perhaps, but the cost of critical thinking is not a great loss to faith in modern times. The fact that these stories cannot be fully reconciled with the historical records of the Roman Empire (although the life and ministry of Jesus is a historical fact outside of the Christian Bible) makes it very difficult for the modern reader to accept them as "the literal truth". Northrop Frye points out in his last book "The Double Vision" that the phrase "literal truth" is not self-consistent. 'Literal' refers to stories that exist in the realm of the human imagination, and cannot be proven 'True or False' in a logical sense. The Bible is a collection of stories that point to an underlying reality that is stronger than the human imagination. The stories in the Bible testify to the reality of a loving creator God who interacts with man, who is just one of his creations. In Frye's understanding, there are truths that are so real they can only be expressed in human language by the form of a myth. These types of myths are indeed "Words with Power". [Words With Power: Being a Second Study of 'The Bible and Literature' (Collected Works of Northrop Frye) by Northrop Frye (Author), Michael Dolzani (Editor)].
Fourth Session: Modern Difficulties with Biblical Texts:
Methuselah's age, the Burning Bush, The Flood, etc.
January 12th and 17th, 2016.
This month’s session is about Northrop Frye, The Bible, and Science: or how to look at the Bible, keep faith within your heart, and be rational at the same time!
Frye’s understanding of literature was deep; but his acquaintance with science and mathematics was not as deep!
Frye gave a talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Toronto in 1981 entitled “The Bridge of Language”: The talk was later published in the Journal Science, but the public domain abstract on the Internet reads as follows:
< The elements of human culture, including literature and the sciences, grow out of a basis in social concern. As they develop, their inner structures begin to emerge and those practicing them make discoveries within those structures. When tensions arise with the concerns of society a divided loyalty arises. In the past, social concerns which resisted science or censored literature were usually wrong, but there are very intense concerns today, such as environmental pollution, which appear to be bringing us to a common meeting point. >
The first three sentences of this abstract are highly obscure to me, but in the last sentence he clearly predicts a convergence of the modes of expression in literature and the sciences.
In my opinion, many Bible stories contain a remnant of historical and scientific truth.
A number and its unit constitute a complete measurement report in Physics. But it is common in conversation to assume the units and report only the numbers. This sloppy habit can often lead to confusion. Consider the case when we only hear part of a radio sports broadcast. For example: “ … Toronto beat New York 6 to 5 ”, a sportscaster is heard to say. What did we really hear in this fragment? Did it mean to say that the entire cities fought each other? Because the radio program was about sports, it must be the resulting score of a game or contest between the representative teams of these two cities.
But which teams, and what game are being discussed? What are the units of measure of the numbers 6 and 5: i.e. goals, or runs? Well these numbers certainly can’t be scores from Cricket or Basketball games, because their values are far too small. Because Toronto and New York only play low scoring games in hockey and baseball, it must be one or the other. So we conclude the actual sports situation cannot be resolved fully by this fragment of the Sports broadcast that we heard. The information received was incomplete.
Does the same uncertainty about units of measure affect other stories, such as in the ones in the Bible?
Some units of measure in the Bible are strange. Consider the story of creation of the World in six days recorded in Genesis. Here, the Hebrew word for “day” refers to the heat of the sun, so this unit of time can't be glossed over as an "age" instead of a solar day. But this makes no sense if modern cosmologists tell us the age of the universe is robustly established at 13.7 to 13.8 billion years old. However, the story is simple and beautiful, and is probably a version of the answer to a question from a child: “Mommy, where did the world come from”?
Actually, the establishment and evolution of historical Calendars can be seen in other Bible passages.. In Genesis, the maximum age (in the Hebrew units of Sha'nah (meaning age, cycle, period, or year) of the earliest patriarchs were given in numbers that seem very large to modern ears. Methuselah died at 969 Sha’nahs, If Sha’nah is a unit referring to a modern solar year, then we have a problem because no one lives that long nowadays. But if the same word Sha’nah (a complete cycle or period) was used originally to count the rotations of the moon about the earth, then we can divide 969 by 12.3 (approximately the number of months contained in a complete solar year), and the result we get is 78.8 solar years, which is a common age for humans now to die of natural causes.
Consider the story of Enoch who was believed to be taken up to Heaven at the age of 365. Now, it may be coincidence, but there are approximately 365 1/4 days in the solar year, the time the earth requires to complete one orbit around our sun. Is this a coincidence that Enoch completed his earthly life at 365, the rounded number of full days in a year? Enoch was a holy man, who walked with God. Maybe he is associated with this number in memory of the astronomer who first figured out the length of the solar year in days, which is a very important number to agriculture, and to accurate calendars. Personally, I suspect his maximum age is no accident, and does not refer to his age at death in units of months. Of all the patriarchs in this section, Enoch was the most holy, and was most probably the scholar-priest who first determined the length of the solar year accurate to a single day. Remember, a solar year is not equal to 12 lunar months, but approximately 12.3 months. This probably is the case of a certain very important number being inserted into the Bible’s oral text so that its value would not be easily forgotten.
I have a few more thoughts about numbers and ages in Bible stories. It is worth noting that before the Bible was written down, it was passed on as an oral tradition. To remember the story accurately, oral traditions cast it into the form of musical poetry, so that if a word is forgotten, or a number has changed because a basic unit of measure has been redefined, but keeping the same name, the meter or the melody wouldn't work out correctly, and so the trouble with the story would be noticed, and the error would be corrected. I believe the preserving of an oral tradition makes it very difficult to change a number from its traditional value, because it wouldn't fit the pre-established melody or meter.
The story of Abraham and Sarah gives a different slant on Calendar units. In western Mesopotamia (e.g. the city of Mari ), their early calendar was based on two seasons per year. If a persons’ age was to be reckoned in terms of two six-month seasons, then Abraham’s numerical age in the Bible would be twice as high as if we calculate ages now in solar years. Now only Abraham’s age is recorded at the time of his children’s birth, but his first wife Sarah, probably had a similar age. The Bible records Abraham’s age as 86 when Ishmael was born (via Hagar, Sarah’s slave), 99 when he made a Covenant with God and became circumcised, and 100 when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. In modern solar years, these ages would be 43, 49.5, and 50. Now it is probable that Sarah would have been between 40-50 solar years old when Isaac was born, implying she became pregnant after she had stopped menstruating regularly, and therefore she had a late peri-menopausal birth for Isaac. This is not unusual for modern women. Furthermore, the Bible records that Abraham died at 175 (87.5 solar years) and Sarah died at 127 (63.5 solar years). So if we realize that the ages in Ancient times always referred to Calendar systems that were continually evolving, and may have been quite different from our modern calendar, some human ages stated in the Bible can be reconciled with modern anthropology and archaeology.
The story of a great flood in ancient times is found in many cultures throughout the world. In the Bible, it takes the form of the story of Noah’s ark. But we should recognize the human tendency to take our weather and climate as being "the way it always has been" - despite the ice ages, and the scientific evidence for the rise and fall of sea levels over geological time. Archaeologists have recently found evidence for city ruins in deep water under the Black Sea, giving rise to some interesting speculations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Sea_deluge_hypothesis ). The Bible story of Noah’s ark maybe an ancient children’s tale rooted in sea level changes such as the rise of the level of the Black Sea leaving ruins under the water.
In another story, the infant Moses is place in the river Nile in a reed basket waterproofed by tar or bitumen (rather than white pine tree sap, or pine pitch, if the story had been set in Ontario, Canada). So the Bible story of Moses in a basket is true to the abundant sub-surface oil deposits which leak through the surface geology of the Arabian deserts in the Middle East.
In a very similar manner, the story of Moses and the burning bush maybe a reference to natural gas vents that had caught fire naturally (e.g., by lightning).
In another way some of our difficulties with the wording of the King James Bible, could be attributed to errors in translation or geography. In the story of Exodus, we are told by the King James Authorized Version of the Bible that Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. But the contemporary interpretation of this in reformed Judaism is that Moses crossed instead through the shallower “Sea of Reeds”. Hollywood’s portrayal of the parting of the Red Sea in the movie the Ten Commandments (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4H5tjx2Zpg) is bad physics and full of the trickery of "special effects".
How do these thoughts affect faith? Some people believe that if critical thinking can mess with one detail found in the Bible, then the “Truth” of the whole Bible is lost. But in my personal view, the literature of the Bible documents the struggle of people of faith in our tradition to understand the nature of God, and what God means to humanity.
Feedback from the Fourth Session:
Faith emerges from those Bible Stories that tell of generations of people who had a relationship with God, and called on Him for help and solace when they are in trouble.
Believing that every word in the Bible is the literal word of God diminishes the importance of its message to the world, and challenges its validity under translation into vernacular languages.
The importance of the story of the Burning Bush, is not the image of it, but the sound and content of the Voice that emerges from within it. (This is according to Frye's opinion.)
The magnificence of Nature (the stars at night, the rich varieties of plants and animals on the earth, the wonder at the structural features of the human body) suggest to us that a Creator God must be involved behind it all.
There is no scientific evidence yet for the existence of flying saucers, UFOs that can be interpreted as real alien craft (rather than observational errors), or time travel from the future to the present or the past. The planet earth seems to live in local isolation from alien life elsewhere in our Galaxy, or in our Universe, because of the finite speed of light.
The story of Noah's ark is so simple and naive, that it may be an ancient children's story. The animals go onto the arc in pairs (two by two), but there is no predation on the ark (obviously this story was not written by a hunter or a biologist). Note that if there were only two animals of each species surviving the flood, there would have been a huge "genetic bottleneck" leading to diminished diversity in the animal kingdom. Such a universal diminishment in the genetic diversity of animals is just not observed in nature. The hydrodynamic stability of the ark (its seaworthiness) is also not demonstrated. It could have been top-heavy, as in pictures with a house on the top deck, and animals all around the railings. If the ark had "flipped over" and sunk, then the animals and people of creation contained in it would not have survived the flood. Sanitation and food storage problems are not discussed in the Bible story. In the Methodist Ontario of the 19th century, the Noah's Ark toy-set was one of the few approved things that young children could play with on a Sunday afternoon at home.
What is the United Church’s stand on Bible being the revealed word of God? Our Church does not have a literalistic/fundamentalist view that every word in the Bible is the inerrant and the true word of God. An example of our “liberal” theology is the Modern Creed of the United Church of Canada. We view the Bible (as does Northrop Frye) as a masterpiece of religious literature and art.
Some people seem to be convinced that changing anything in the interpretation of the Bible is the beginning of the slippery slope to hell-hole of atheism.
Our United Church denomination struggles to keep the word of the Bible, and also to continually re-interpret it as we live our lives. In Judaism, it appears that new interpretations of the Bible must be ratified by a Rabbinical Panel (the process of the "Oral Torah"). But what about the method of acquiring new knowledge and insights by performing scientific experiments and research in the medical, physical, biological and social sciences?
"Fundamentalists" probably seek a sense of security in their simple “everlasting” beliefs.
Sermons can give new perspective on our faith, but they are a “download” rather that a two-way seminar.
We do not condone “black and white” fundamentalist thinking; we accept shades of grey, especially in the criminal law and in social history and in the interpretation of religious literature (the scriptures).
Is the Bible a single canon, the only source of teaching? Frye says that the Bible is the greatest literary work of art in our civilization.
What about other religions and cultures? We are a Canadian urban church in a multicultural society. Someone has said “There is one God, but many paths lead to Him ...” Such generalized statements may be subject to more rigorous analysis and reflection.
Fifth Session: Why does the bad happen to the good?
"Listening to Northrop Frye Lecture on the Book of Job".
February 9th and 14th, 2016.
The Book of Job is part of the "Wisdom Literature" of the Christian Bible. The story behind the Book of Job is very old, Exactly how old, we are not sure, but evidence exist that a similar poem about the suffering of a righteous man existed in the much earlier Sumerian times. Northrop Frye states that the story has two parts, a very old beginning and end, and an more elaborate and expansive middle part that dates approximately from 300 BC.
A scholarly summary of the Book of Job can be found online in Wikipedia , which states that some of the story is also found in the Qu'ran. In the Seminar, I began with these introductory remarks, including the recent book entitled "When bad things happen to good people" by Harold S. Kushner (2004)., and a summary of the Wikipedia article, then we listened to and watched the first half hour of Frye's lecture Number 20.on the topic JOB: A TEST. Frye's lectures are truly to be appreciated in their original video form.
There wasn't time to view all three of Fry's lectures on Job (the end of Lecture 20, Lecture 21 JOB AND THE QUESTION OF TRAGEDY , and Lecture 22 JOB AND RESTORED HUMANITY ). Frye notes that the story, even as the entire Bible, is set in analogy with a Court of Law, in which Satan, the adversarial prosecutor, accuses man (or all men) of misdemeanors before God with respect to the holy covenant HE has established with them. As Rabbi Harold Kushner says in his book to the effect of "Why do some bad things like that happen to me in life, and what did I do to deserve it"? So the theme of Job is the triumph of a heart of courage over adversity, when there is no obvious cause of fault on behalf of the suffering victim, and the only redeeming force in the victim's life is his courage and loyalty before the face of God.
The story of Job is a key part of Frye's lecture course on the Bible, and I encourage all to put your undergraduate thinking caps on, "tough it out" by listening carefully and watching these three full lectures (20, 21 and 22).
Feedback from the Fifth Session:
Concerning the Book of Job, we recognize that it deals with the question "Why do some bad things like that happen to me, and what did I do to deserve it? The theme of Job, a man in trouble showing a heart of courage, suggests the importance of being with and praying for people in need.
The story of Job presents us with the tough problems of life. When we apply critical thinking skills to this situation, we begin to realize that God may not intervene in the world to the benefit of all those who believe. This contrasts with the view of some Fundamentalist groups that proclaim if you believe, then God will reward you with both spiritual and material riches. This is such a simple proposition that you really don't have much to question or think about when you first hear its claim. In fact, if you question this and other facile teachings of certain religious groups, you will certainly be asked to leave their company.
Life involves contradictions, uncertainty, and a quest for understanding. Could it be that God has given us such a magnificent universe to inhabit, that it is capable of nourishing both the spiritually rich and the suffering poor? Humans have evolved within the natural world of Earth, which involves the reality of predators. How can an act of predation seem fair to the prey? Questions about life can be challenging to us, whenever critical thinking is involved. And we realize that this type of thinking is shunned by many faiths. Within the United Church of Canada, critical thinking is held in high regard, and actually leads us toward a life of more profound faith.
The older members of a faith congregation may have a more mellow approach to life, than younger, edgier people, who haven't experienced as much. At this time, we can ask what will be the future of our United Church faith community? Will it become extinct, or will it, through critical thinking, become a more dynamic community, one that is able to face uncertainty and incompleteness of human spiritual knowledge with the courage of Job?
Many participants remarked that the Christian Bible is a Library of Individual Books, not just a single story such as the story of Job. So the Bible is more complex and variegated than the ancient Sumerian poems that formed the Epic of Gilgamesh, which most probably predate the Bible, certainly in written form.
Some consider there are parallels between the book of Job and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, found in the New Testament. The temptation of Jesus is cast in the form of a trial of him by Satan, who eventually departs Jesus while he is in the wilderness, to return again at an "opportune time".. Note that the concept of the Wilderness being a foreign territory, is seen from the point of view of a civilized man in a City. To such people, the Wilderness has characteristics of Chaos, and the Darkness of the Deep. But to desert nomads, the Wilderness is actually "home". So our cultural background can influence our view of wilderness territories, and also our concepts of our eternal God. For example, our concept of law intervenes into the very basic structure of the Bible, by its continual repetition (in different contexts) the ideas of sin (lawbreaking), accusation, trial, judgement, and punishment.
Note that there are also repetitions of simple numbers in the Bible, such as three and seven. The creation story of Genesis states that God observed or instituted the traditional Jewish pattern of the work week - God laboured for six days, and rested of the seventh, defining a seven-day period for the first time. There were seven loaves and fishes in the story of the feeding of the multitude at Tabgha, the traditional site of the Jesus performing a "miracle" such as was expected from the true Messiah. The case of the number three is more relevant to the stories of Job and the life of Jesus as told by the Evangelists. Job is visited and comforted by three friends, and Jesus at his birth was visited by the Three Magi. Even our concept of God in Christianity involve the number three, the Trinity. But remember with caution the story of the mathematician at the period of the Spanish Inquisition, who claimed he could explain the Trinity by the conjecture that God was three-dimensional. The poor mathematician was eventually put to death for heresy by the Inquisition.
Session Six: The Joy of Easter in 2016. (About Memes)
(Tuesday March 8, and Sunday March 13)
Since 1976, we have come to use Richard Dawkins' term "Meme" (memory 'gene') to describe ideas that easily transfer from one person to another, and are in fact self-replicating, error-correcting, self-evolving and self-sustaining over the long term. I suggest that world religions use (and also abuse) memes to express their ideas, and transfer these between humans.
The Joy of Easter, is a Meme of surprise that tell us that “ideas are eternal”, or more mechanistically, "software transcends hardware". As seemed to Jesus' surviving community of disciples - after his death - they were left in a wilderness of doubt and despair. But then, they gradually (in spurts and starts) became aware that Jesus was still with them spiritually, and that this was so real that he had in fact for them "risen from the dead" and become inseparable with the Meme of God the Father/Creator.
Because of the wide spread use of personal computers and smart phones, we are all aware of the concepts of hardware and software. Software enables the hardware to work. Without proper software, even the newest of computers is useless. Software programs, or applications, can work on different designs of hardware and their various operating systems (such as versions of Windows, iOS, Mountain-Lion, Linux … ) which work with many different integrated chip sets). Occasionally, we refer to the mechanistic picture of electronic computation to model the action of living humans. In such an exaggerated model, the body of a human might be the hardware, the particular neural networks in the brain might be a type of computing system, and the thoughts and ideas inside the brain might be the software. By extension, the ideas created by one human mind can be transferred as Memes to the minds of others by education, and these Memes can persist in society long after their initiator has in fact died.
The varied forms of human culture are examples of types of Memes that evolve spontaneously, are larger than any individual, and persist much longer than human lifetimes. These are the conditions for the creation of robust and identifiable identities for human societies.
Northrop Frye, in his renowned undergraduate course (Victoria College, University of Toronto, from the 1950s to the 1980s) on Biblical Symbolism used terms such as “stories containing myth and metaphor" to describe the literature of the Bible. As described above, I will use Dawkins’ term Memes for the language of the books of the Bible. These Memes are transferable human ideas out of which have emerged symbols of an underlying reality in which are lives are embedded. In the Christian tradition, these symbols are expressed in the form of Memes of a monotheistic Creator/God, whose form also includes both a Messianic Redeemer, and a Spiritual Advocate.
During the presentation of The Joy of Easter in 2016 in the first part of this March Session, I reviewed some of the ideas that had been developed in previous Sessions. Then I simply read and commented on the end of the Gospel of Matthew from the death of Jesus on the Cross at Chapter 27, verse 45 to the end at Chapter 28, verse 20, as recorded in the Jerusalem Bible translation. Much of this material is not normally read aloud in churches because of length limitations within the three year lectionary, and rereading it in a group of adults sheds light on the literary tools used by the Evangelists in writing the Gospels. Indeed, there is much doubt and ambiguity behind the story of the resurrection. Note that the Easter story differs from the earlier story of Jesus' awakening of Lazarus from the tomb, which comments in detail about the interactions between Lazarus, his friends and family after leaving his tomb after being visited and cured by Jesus. Only much later do the Easter Sunday events at the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathaea become clear in the minds of the Disciples and the Evangelists.
After Jesus apparently rose from the dead, he interacts only sporadically with his disciples in forms that are often hard for them to recognize. It is clear that the risen Jesus does not retain his old corporeal form because he keeps being misidentified, reappearing, and then disappearing.
Often visions of recently deceased relatives are seen by bereaved people, who sometimes (but not always) perceive their former companions to be momentarily back with them, feeling either their proximity or briefly visualizing their bodily form. This behaviour can be ascribed to normal functions of a human brain under conditions of physical shock, as many healthy people have reported stories of similar experiences.
The story about Easter in the Gospel of Matthew was not intended to be a journalistic account of a burial and crime scene (the theft of a body), but an Evangelistic Meme on the theme "He is still with us". The account in Matthew uses magical imagery to support the underlying significance of the resurrection Meme, namely, that ideas survive longer than the humans that first generated them. It is interesting that the consequences of the report of a missing body in Joseph's Tomb on Easter Sunday seem to become clear over a time frame of several hours or several days, and are not understood in a sudden event like a bolt of lightning followed by a clap of thunder.
A literal reading of the encounters with Jesus’ “apparitions” (following the missing body in Joseph's tomb) will also contain errors in "frames of reference" (commonly introduced in undergraduate Physics courses). While not mentioned specifically in Matthew’s final Chapter 28, Mark’s Gospel Chapter 16: 19-20 states that:
“And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven: there at the right hand of God he took his place, while they, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by signs that accompanied it.”
(Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition, New Testament, page 69 [Copyright 1967, 1968, and 1969, by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd and Doubleday & Company, Inc., ISBN 0-385-01156-3]). But for a spherical earth, this makes no literal sense. In a global frame of reference containing both Australia and the Mediterranean Middle East, what is "up" to one location is seen as globally "down" for its antipodal location.
Word-for-word literal interpretations of the quoted section of Mark's Gospel suggest even bigger difficulties. For we can ask the question: "In the rich relativistic space-time structure of our 13.7 billion year old observable cosmos, where is heaven actually located"? Just ask an astronomer if this is a proper question that has an answer.
The Easter Meme of resurrection in Christianity is not contained in the literal English words of the Jerusalem Bible's translation of the New Testament from its original Greek text. It is actually the sudden joy of realizing that the words Jesus taught have a long-lived reality and a present importance to us today, such a long time after his physical death. It reflects the larger Meme of Christianity, which points to the important underlying meanings of our human condition and our relationships with our Creator.
Feedback from the Sixth Session:
Some participants commented that they hadn't ever thought so much，and in such detail，about the Bible. They just accepted what was said in sermons and commentaries. They found Frye's thinking in the video lectures very difficult to follow, and his written books seemed incomprehensible to many.
The congregation of West Hill United Church in eastern Toronto ON, led by the proclaimed atheist Gretta Vosper, seems to contradict the familiar Christian faith of past centuries. Their Faith Statement is interesting to read. They have cast away words and phrases of belief that are now objectionable in their modern lives and their surrounding cultural environment.
The attraction of Gretta Vosper's atheistic preaching to certain sectors of Canadian society is both significant and troubling for the traditional Christian Church, which must respond to this dissident situation with new ideas.
Vosper's approach to the Bible seems very literalistic. She vehemently disagrees with Christian Fundamentalists, who understand the Bible to be "The Authoritative Word Of God For All Time". Indeed, she wants to change its words to make it more acceptable to her views.
Here are some shortcomings of Greta Vosper's approach to the divine: She seems to be throwing out the image of the anthropomorphic God drawn by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. But most of us also reject this medieval image of God, so why is she saying she can only be an atheist because of this rejection? A God that is compatible with modern science and critical thinking seems incomprehensible to her. Insisting that traditionalists consider that the Bible represents "the authoritative word of God for all time", doesn't allow for the concept of God to evolve and grow in the minds of men, (which aren't anywhere equivalent to the capabilities of a Creator-God), who can easily show love to us in the here and now of our daily life. In brief, Vosper short-changes us religiously by her proclaimed atheism.
Vosper's interpretation of the King James Authorized Version of the Bible differs from Frye’s view that the Bible is an integrated story - from cover to cover - and describes the historical and imaginative story of the development of a religious relationship between the people who were descendants of Israel and their Creator God.
Words and phrases such as God, the doctrine of the Trinity, and intercessory prayer may have little meaning for West Hill United Church's congregation. But while we do live in the present multicultural world, Christians do need to regenerate and preserve the "faith necessary for today". A strong Christian faith statement should allow for the 'human condition' to be constantly changing as our Memes about the unseeable but ever present God will certainly evolve to be different in future generations. Why should our Memes evolve? They will do so in response to the ever growing fields of knowledge produced by scientific investigations.
The topic of the Parables of Jesus involves the use of Memes in their various interpretations. Take, for example, the parable of the sower and the seed (warning: bad seed might be in part of the mix scattered by some 'anti-social' sowers, in addition to the problems of bad soil conditions on which some of the good seed would also land). Note that Memes, like viruses, do not always spread “the word of God”. Remember that history records the existence of "Meme wars" between good and evil ideas for the possession of the minds of people.
Our task in reading the Bible is to refresh the Meme that God is with us. For us, as Christians, it is important to understand with our minds the deep reality that God is alive and within us for our lifetime. About the afterlife, we have Memes, but no concrete scientific proof.
Reading the Bible with the approach of critical thinking is essential for our age of rapid changes in knowledge and in our living conditions.
Young adults are not interested in versions of Christianity that pose to them no intellectual challenge and no need for critical thinking skills.
Seventh Session : Images of Heaven and Hell
(Perfection and Imperfection)
Sunday April 17, 2016 ONLY
Images of Perfection
Images of Imperfection
the spiritual soul
the carnal body
inside an igloo
outside in a blizzard
river / oasis / city
dry wadi / desert / wasteland
Tree of Life (Garden)
Tree of Death (Cross)
It is useful to remember that the concepts of Heaven and Hell are culturally dependent: Mayan, Daoist, and Hindu imagery are quite distinct from the corresponding images described by the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). For example, Hell is not a hot fiery place for the Innu culture, but it is rather an endless stretch of ice and snow and darkness. (When hunting, Innu shelter in an igloo [home], to avoid the endless snow and ice [frozen wilderness]). Furthermore, the ideas stating that Heaven is "up" and Hell is "down" actually refer to primitive cosmologies of a flat earth, which assumed as "absolute" a conveniently assumed geocentric system of reference, (this was for millennia held true by the Roman church’s literal Aristotelian reading of the Bible). Later in the Renaissance, it was shown by Copernicus, Galileo and Newton that the Earth was actually a huge rotating sphere with a gravitational field that was in orbit about the Sun..
Also there has been an endless debate on the nature of the human "soul" - is there eternal life for the soul in Heaven or Hell, or do we have only a mortal life which could be of "everlasting value" to our descendants. And can we communicate with the spirits and souls of the dead just as we might communicate with God through prayer? These fruitless types of debate arise whenever we try to over-analyze literary images.
What has really changed since Bible times is our intellectual frame of reference. Consider the materials of the ancient alchemists: air, water earth and fire. They are no longer considered as elements (don’t laugh at, or feel superior to their ancient minds ), but they are now recognized as the four principal states of matter (ordinary gases, liquids, solids and plasmas (hot ionized gases)! They certainly were four important ideas, but coming before the science of Chemistry was clarified, ancient minds "jumped the gun" by concluding what their significance was. They are not the elements of matter, but rather the states or phases of matter...
If we are the same as people in Bible times (70 to 200 generations ago), where are the prophets and their miracles nowadays? I assert that prophets have now (since the time of Copernicus) emerged as revolutionary scientists (who have considered themselves to be outside of religion). But perhaps Enoch was the first recorded priest/scientist in Genesis. Living in the times before the great flood, Enoch is revered as having walked with God, and was "taken up" at 365 years of age, the number of integer days in a solar year. (See Genesis 5:23-4 — In all, Enoch lived for three hundred and sixty five years. Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him. [according to the 20th century Jerusalem Bible translation). Was Enoch representative of the people who first measured the length of the solar year? If so, he was truly a scientist, and got a much better treatment in Genesis than Galileo did by the 16/17th century Pope and the Christian Church. Galileo lived at the time of the Renaissance and did experiments that overturned Aristotelian science - and vexed the ire of the church leaders - accusing him of promoting the Copernican heresy that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Galileo did experiments with a telescope on Jupiter that proved the Copernican view of planetary motion (in the example of Jupiter and its moons) to be correct.
Perhaps we should consider at this time the question whether God reveals to us the wonders of his creation through science, through faith or through both?
There is always a degree of incomplete information associated with human life. How we approach this incompleteness is crucial. Do we retain our Biblical Faith, or do we become greatly discouraged that we are not Gods ourselves and fail to know everything?
We have just celebrated Easter, whose story tells of new life after death. This is essentially the message of the science of atoms - whose properties are mainly eternal (except for radioactivity) over hundreds of human life spans. We aren’t re-incarnated after death, but our atoms are then recycled and used for other purposes by nature. What does drive human life is the selfish gene - described by the atheist Richard Dawkins. And through books and electronic data, the information content of our minds survives our lives. As a consequence, new generations will “stand on the shoulders of giants”.
With regard to the theme of today's Seminar on images of perfection and imperfection we could form the question "Is death the imperfect material state of life, and resurrection to an everlasting life the perfect poetic ideal"?
Feedback from the Seventh Session:
One participant commented that Heaven and Hell could both be present in the course of one’s mortal life.
Another participant quoted the American theologian Walter Wink, "The Devil is the force in you that says it is good enough." In the following discussion, the recent story (April, 2016) of a Canadian MP lost on Baffin Island in the Arctic wilderness near Pangnirtung was mentioned as an example of someone who in life went through Hell. He prayed for rescue. After many days, his hunting party was found and all survived..
When Biblical symbols become a stumbling block, people now form social alliances called "Sunday Assemblies". Maybe their members want a sense of community without the 'trappings' and spiritual responsibilities that go with a believing Church. Mainline Churches have fallen in attendance everywhere in North America. But Churches which are "Country Clubs" seem to fail even faster. Friendships are important to a full life. Medical doctors seem to say faith helps the body heal faster. Intercessory prayer chains seem to work - some of the sick say they can “feel” the effect of a group praying for them. Sometimes intercessory prayers are not answered. Are the successes of intercessory prayer related to the very real "Placebo Effect" (as in medicine)?
On life after death - the general feeling in the Seminar was that this is a real part of Christianity, not just a metaphor or image. (Note that either the words “eternal life” or “resurrection” appear in all four gospels). A point of almost universal agreement from the participants is that these concepts are “more” than images of perfection, and have a true reality, with beneficial consequences for people who believe.
One participant commented that it would be a difficulty to live and die and face death without believing “something else” lives on after death. The participant recalled a 'conversation' held with a deceased spouse, who was sensed as a real presence, and would reply to words spoken to them as if truly being present.. It is probable that the physics community would react with skepticism to such testimony - because it isn’t possible to do a Randomized Controlled Trial of such experiences..
Another participant told an anecdote from an 'end-stage' Alzheimer's patient reporting to hear poetry just at at end of his/her life, and commented that would be a beautiful way to pass on.
There was a discussion of positive "Near Death Experiences" giving hope of life beyond life. Although most near death experiences are positive, some have been reported as being quite negative. It is difficult to know whether we can interpret these experiences as being evidence for the everlasting life of an immortal soul.
Finally there was a discussion of the rewording of Church liturgy by The Rev. Gretta Vosper, the self-proclaimed atheist minister of West Hill United Church in East Toronto, Ontario. Some felt that she had paraphrased the word “God” rather than having eliminated it altogether. But, her Church’s statement of faith (posted online here) refers to the importance how people live their lives, rather than the details of what they believe.
Eighth Session: Biblical Faith and Scientific Culture
(Christianity in the Global Village)
This is the last session of my "Bible Seminar for the 21st Century". I want to comment on some important themes. The first is the view of a fellow Christian on the "progressively secularized" description of world in which we live. I also wish to touch on a recent attempt by a philosopher of science to find evidence for a God that might emerge from the complexity of human activity and the results of scientific observations.
I recall having talked to a member of our congregation a while ago, after they had seen the PBS TV series "Cosmos" hosted by the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. If I remember correctly the import of our conversation, the member remarked that "after revealing all the wonders of the Universe, it seemed as if the program stated that all of these could be understood by Science without reference to any creator God". So this person was disappointed by the presenter of the program, Dr. Tyson, who seemed to avoid associating the wonders of the Universe with a divine being.
Perhaps this person, an acquaintance of mine, had gazed up at the starry night sky in summer, and thought it was a true wonder of nature, which demonstrated the full glory of the Biblical Creator. Now, after a magnificent century of astronomical discovery, the night sky appeared to others as evidence of the wonders of Science, and not necessarily evidence for the glory of the Biblical Creator. My friend's heart was truly disappointed by this invasion of secularism from the world of Science.
As a Physicist who is a Christian, I do not look for evidence for the existence of God in external scientific observations. I come into contact with God through interactions with other humans, and from the tradition of faith recorded in the literature of the Christian Bible. During this final session, I read aloud from the writings of the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who responds to the message of Mark 12:29-30 (... Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: ...) As a result, Tutu says " [God] wants us to keep learning and discovering and exploring every inch ... of creation. Over time, we graduate from more simplistic understandings of God to richer and far more complex ones".
But the advance of Science in the past century has been truly remarkable, and has overshadowed both Religion and Philosophy in the production of new knowledge and information of interest to human society. Many of the peoples in the world live in such a secular scientific social environment. In response to other contrasting cultures that are currently influenced and even dominated by religious ideas, some scientists have questioned whether scientific principles by themselves can explain the existence of religious ideas in human society.
I also read aloud some fragments from the recently published book "A God that Could be Real" by Nancy Ellen Abrams (Jan 1, 2015: Beacon Press, Boston). Her book elucidates the idea that God could be an "Emergent Phenomenon" of highly complex natural systems. While some branches of Science reduce complex systems to their elemental parts (as in Elementary Particle Physics), other branches study how simple concepts (such as the economy) arise out of (or emerge from) the study of countless individual transactions of buying and selling. Indeed, a human being, with a characteristic appearance and personality "emerges" from the ordered growth of a vast collection of individual living cells. Both the economy and the human individual are "real" phenomena, even though neither is simple in terms of their behaviour or their description. By extension, the concept of a "real" God can emerge from complex human thoughts (both by individuals and by groups of individuals), but Abrahms' writing cautions us that no matter how complex God becomes, the reality of God exists because we exist..
I note that this idea is precisely the converse of the foundations of the Christian tradition to which I belong.
I commented on several other ideas that are of import in any discussion of religion and a (secular) surrounding scientific culture. The advent of cheap digital communication by the Internet enables all world cultures to "rub shoulders" with each other, and be challenged to tolerate each other at close range. If the Christian God is truly a God of love, then God must love all of his creation, and not just the Christian or the human parts. For a finite world, this must mean the end of the age of "imperial conquest" by Christian missionaries (as were the infamous "black robes" of North and South America). The free exchange of religious ideas in an environment of mutual respect will succeed the phase of 'conversion by conquest'.
Feedback from the Eighth Session:
There is a change in the pace in the competition between religions ideas across the planet. The increasing level of social and economic contact between regions of the world leads to the mutual spread of ideas even despite the existence of some high international barriers. This year (2016) the British Broadcasting Corporation estimated that up to 100 million Christians would celebrate Easter in mainland China. The population of China is estimated to be 1.38 billion at this time. This surprisingly large fraction of Christians in China (7 % of the total population) has arisen despite the fact that Internet and other communication media are strongly controlled by Chinese State censorship. In other areas of the world, the spread of anti-western and anti-Christian ideas has been accelerated by loose international controls on intolerant information cheaply disseminated through the Internet.
When this Seminar started in September 2015, I hoped to introduce many people to the ideas of Northrop Frye, particularly on the study of Biblical Symbolism, but I was only partly successful with this task. People live busy lives, and the time for curiosity-driven private study is limited. Although Frye's introductory ideas on Symbols, Metaphors and Literary Criticism were readily accepted by most of the participants, reading sections of his books proved to be a real barrier. I concluded that the online videos of his undergraduate class lectures (available free at the Heritage Website of the University of Toronto) were much more accessible.
Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that nearly everyone else in the Seminar interpreted the Christian promise of "Everlasting Life" as being real, and not just a literary symbol.
I did grow spiritually by leading the Seminar. For a long time I could not answer the question I often thought about, which is "Why am I me (meaning myself) while you are you (meaning yourself), rather than life having turned out other way around?" Now, molecular biology and anthropology can tell us that modern human life has existed long enough (200 - 5000 generations) for robust genetic mixing to have occurred in the past, so that no matter where we live on earth, we are all genetically similar (i.e., very distant cousins of each other). Therefore, we are all individual "flowers" on the tree of human life, and the fact that we have unique bodies, personalities and consciousness is not a significant issue. So my initial unanswerable question now appears to be irrelevant.
Also, I learned in the course of preparation that all of the three Abrahamic religions (and some other notable ones, such as "Hinduism") share a common myth of the ending of the human era by means of a "last day of judgement". I myself am not certain about these myths (other than being a group allegory of the deaths of individuals). But I do recognize the ever-so-present practice of cults declaring that "the end of the world is at hand", and that it will occur on a specified day. Having outlived all of these predictions without suffering any personal consequences, I am reminded of the saying by the famous American baseball player, Yogi Berra (1925 - 2015), "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." As for the end of time described in the Christian Bible, I subscribe to the metaphoric and symbolic interpretation of the Book of Revelation as given by Northrop Frye in his online Lecture 24 (Revelation: Removing the Veil. [http://heritage.utoronto.ca/content/bible-and-english-literature-northrop-frye-full-lecture-24] ). To Frye, Revelations serves as the poetic and prophetic completion of the Old Testament, from Genesis through to the Prophets. It is certainly not an encrypted prediction of all future events.
With this final entry, the "Bible Seminar for the 21st Century" draws to a close. Many topics have been left untouched, such as 'Medicine in the Bible', to name just one important example. I encourage all who visit this site and read this transcript to think critically about their own spiritual life, and continue to grow in wisdom and understanding.
(Completed June 05, 2016)