Friday, February 6, 2015

Ecclesiastes Proceeds to Mention Great Sins and Cries Out That Avarice is the Root Of All Evil.

The mockery of "the bronze age" in atheist invective, apart from showing that they think out of a basis of ignorance of their target.  It proves they've never read the books of The Bible which are seldom simple minded and always require thinking harder than you learn from watching science shows on cabloid TV.   And it proves even some of those presented by them as scholars. the source of that slogan,  never even read it because Iron is mentioned any number of times in the oldest books of The Bible.  But that's a minor thing as compared to the larger problem represented by the profound ignorance of the neo-atheists.

That a fourth century bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, could read the books of the First Testament and produce such a sophisticated analysis of them as he did in his sermons on Ecclesiastes demonstrates that religious thought, theology, is, far from simplistic.   In fact it's far too hard for the conceited dopes who dismiss it without ever having looked at it*.   His reading, setting his analysis within a larger analysis of a progression from Proverbs to Ecclisiastes, to The Song of Songs is more sophisticated and requires more reading and thought than the facile, superficial and no-reading-required slogans of 21st century atheism.  You won't find an "as seen on TV" version of it because it can't be condensed to fit into a TV schedule and it requires thinking and not pretty pictures and can't be turned into an adventure narrative.  Such is the stuff of today's idea of sophistication and erudition.

The one I'm concentrating on, the fourth one, shows that Gregory of Nyssa found those base motives of the "new atheism" at the foundation of slavery, vanity, superficiality, materialism.   Without those there would never have been a motive to enslave and oppress someone else, to presume to master them and steal their labor, their lives and their children.  I think that this earliest abolitionist tract might also be one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in that it looks hard at the reasons slavery exists based in human weakness and selfishness as the cause in such sharp focus.  In doing that he was tacitly acknowledging the difficulty in ending slavery and why fighting against it would never be over as long as selfishness was a controlling part of human personality.

Slavery didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation, not even in the United States with the great Civil War amendments to the Constitution, it continued with the blessings of courts all through the Jim Crow period and persists today, if with a bit less official blessing in the country and through the World Trade Organization as it is exported to other countries, including such "workers paradises" of China.   That communism, far from freeing workers from their chains they were widely pretended to be, even in the intelligentsia of the left here, has proved to be the major venue of openly legalized slavery within our lifetimes and today,  may indicate that materialism will never end slavery because it lacks the moral force to do that.  I think materialism will always co-exist with slavery because it turns people into objects and lacks any moral prohibition from other people using them as objects, either for individual gain or for the gain of a larger corporation or conspiracy to profit from the labor of other people.   I would expect that all of the legal documents in all of the non-Muslim countries where slavery exists today have some kind of prohibition of it while it is allowed.  The same is true here where the current cover word "agency" is given as a pretense that what is so obviously being done is not what it is, even as the graphic depiction of the degredation and enslavement of "sex workers" is as plain as their addiction, their subjugation, their inability to give meaningful consent, etc.  And their use as objects is presented as the height of sophisticated modern thinking, in service to freedom.  Vanity is as rampantly thriving today as it was in the remote past, in the Common Era and before it.  So is dishonesty, in service to the most vulgar of materialism.


The Fourth Homily (beginning)

The topic of [Ecclesiastes'] confession detains us because for by speaking about himself he lists all those characteristics enabling us to recognize the vanity of this life. It is as though he now puts a greater censure upon mens' deeds and accuses them of passion due to their arrogance. Among those things he includes is an expensive home, many vineyards, beautiful gardens, pools and orchards, do we find a person who regards himself as lord over his fellow man? "I obtained servants, maidens, servants born to me in my house" [2.7]. Do you see here a pride which makes false pretensions? Such words as these rise up against God. As prophecy has told us [Ps 118.91], all things serve [God] whose power is over them. As for the person who appropriates to himself [J.335] what belongs to God and attributes to himself power over the human race as if he were its lord, what other arrogant statement transgressing human nature makes this person regard himself as different from those over whom he rules? "I obtained servants and maidens." What are you saying? You condemn man who is free and autonomous to servitude, and you contradict God by perverting the natural law. Man, who was created as lord over the earth, you have put under the yoke of servitude as a transgressor and rebel against the divine precept. You have forgotten the limit of your authority which consists in jurisdiction over brutish animals. Scripture says that man shall rule birds, beasts, fish, four-footed animals and reptiles [Gen 1.26]. How can you transgress the servitude bestowed upon you and raise yourself against man's freedom by stripping yourself of the servitude proper to beasts? "You have subjected all things to man," the psalmist prophetically cries out [Ps 8.7-8], referring to those subject to reason as "sheep, oxen, and cattle" [M.665]. 

Do sheep and oxen beget [J.336] men for you? Irrational beasts have only one kind of servitude. Do these form a paltry sum for you? "He makes grass grow for the cattle and green herbs for the service of men" [Ps 103.14]. But once you have freed yourself from servitude and bondage, you desire to have others serve you. "I have obtained servants and maidens." What value is this, I ask? What merit do you see in their nature? What small worth have you bestowed upon them? What payment do you exchange for your nature which God has fashioned? God has said, "Let us make man according to our image and likeness" [Gen 1.26]. Since we are made according to God's likeness and are appointed to rule over the entire earth, tell me, who is the person who sells and buys? Only God can do this; however, it does not pertain to him at all "for the gifts of God are irrevocable" [Rom 11.29]. Because God called human nature to freedom which had become addicted to sin, he would not subject it to servitude again. If God did not subject freedom to slavery, who can deny his lordship? How does the ruler of the entire earth obtain dominion [J.337] since every possession requires payment? How can we properly estimate the earth in its entirety as well as its contents? If these things are inestimable, tell me, how much greater is man's value who is over them? If you mention the entire world you discover nothing equivalent to man's honor. He who knows human nature says that the world is not an adequate exchange for man's soul. When the Lord of the earth bought man, he acquired nothing more precious. He will then proclaim this surpassing possession along with the earth, island, sea and everything in them. 

What is the deposit God puts down? What will he receive from the contract by which he has received possession? Does an account, written agreement or small amount of money deceive you in order to obtain the image of God? Oh, what a delusion! If the contract perishes, moths corrode the letters and dripping water brings destruction, where are your pledges of domination? I see nothing more than a title [J.338] under your control. What authority enhances your nature? It is neither time, beauty, honor nor virtue. These yield a life similarly dominated by passions of both soul and body with you as its lord: suffering and cheerfulness, joy and sadness, grief and pleasure, wrath and fear, pain and death. Do not these belong to both slave and lord who breathe the same air and look upon the sun? Does not food[M.668] nourish them both? Do not they have the same intestines? Do not both become dust in death? Is there not one standard? Is there not a common rule and a common hell? How can you who are equal in all things have superiority so that as man, you consider yourself as man's ruler and say "I have servants and maidens" as if they were goats or cattle? When Ecclesiastes said that "I have servants and maidens" he also speaks of his prosperity in flocks and herds: "I also had abundant possessions of flocks and herds," both of which were subject to his authority. 

Ecclesiastes proceeds to mention great sins [J.339] and cries out that avarice is the root of all evil. "I collected for myself both silver and gold" [2.8]. What is more harmful than gold mixed with earth in those locations where the Creator had originally placed it? What is more advantageous for you than the earth's bounty which the Creator has made? Do not fruit trees contribute to your nourishment? Then why do you violate the bounds of authority? Show what the Creator has bestowed upon you such as mining, digging, burning and gathering what you have not scattered. This is not an accusation against gathering metal from the earth to manufacture money but since the mind cannot be free of avarice, Ecclesiastes adds "The special treasures of kings and princes" [2.8]. Kings gather wealth from provinces, a clear indication that they impose burdens, collect taxes and take money from their subjects. And so Ecclesiastes says that he gathers gold and silver. But whether or not this is true, I know that a great benefit lies in store for the person who collects such material possessions. [J.340] Let us exchange neither a mina, drachma or talent with avaricious persons; instead, let us hasten to turn everything into gold. As soon as possible let us exchange the earth, sand, mountains plains and vales for this material. What contribution do these have for happiness? If one sees in the universe what he now beholds on a small scale, how can such wealth benefit the soul or body? How can gold make a person wise, ingenious, contemplative, skilled, dear to God, pure, lacking passion and free from evil? Or if this is not the case, what good is there in being strong in body or in seeing one's life prolonged for many years and free from illness and harm? However, [M.669] no one is so vain nor inattentive to human nature to realize that these benefits are available for men even though a great amount of money is available for everyone. 

* "If Sagan really wants to hear serious disputation about the nature of the universe, he should leave the academic precincts in Ithaca and spend a few minutes in an Orthodox study house in Brooklyn."  Richard Lewontin: Billions and Billions of Demons 


  1. Thank you for this. I'm going to have to read Gregory's words slowly, and meditate on them. Far better than most of the stuff I find on the intertoobs.

    I was reading an essay on Levinas and Kierkegaard last night, an essay that includes this sentence:

    "For 'absolute alterity' turns out to be an 'absolute disturbance' to every order, semantic or social, by means of which human reason seeks to makes itself lord of the earth."

    And this, a bit further on:

    "The distinguishing mark of this thought is that it radically disturbs the thoughts by which we construct the worlds of nature and history."

    There is a great deal more of interest there than in the blatherings on-line about "Bronze Age mentality." I find it now, reading it again, to be of a piece with Gregory. Not that Gregory would agree necessarily with Levinas and this essay, but that they are speaking the same language, and reasoning in the same way; a language and a reasoning completely alien to the "reasonable" New Atheists.

    1. I am regretting ever more that my education had nothing written by theologians in it, a tiny bit of Aquinas and a few others excepted. You don't have to agree with everything someone says, how many entirely secular, academic writers can someone agree with entirely. I am rather shocked to find how good so much of it is and how valuable it is. I remember when that movie about the British abolitionist effort came out about ten years ago, now many of even the better online "secularists" where whining and crying about it being, somehow, unfair to point out that all of those people were Christians, ignoring that their arguments were based on the scriptures. It was about the same time that I started looking at the claims of the online atheists and finding, to my shock, now much of the common received "knowledge" I'd gotten was as much a lie as any fundamentalist line of factoids anyone could name. Even some of my former heroes were thick in it, Bertrand Russell, lots and lots of other British, French and American thinkers I'd been taught to revere were outright liars. In the case of Russell, I think he was a knowing liar who, the more I read of him and put his invective into the context of his career and biography, the more petty it all seemed. And the best of neo-atheists are nothing compared to them.

      I'm hoping to take a good look at Stephen Jay Gould's accusation against Tielhard de Chardin, what I've read so far leads me to believe that even Gould was guilty of that kind of thing in service to his ideological interests. And there aren't any of the above I respect more than I have Gould. His "evidence" was so bad that I can't believe anything but animosity could have led him to write what he did.

    2. Continental philosophers (Wittgenstein, Derrida, Vattimo, Levinas) are much more comfortable discussing religion, even if they are not themselves religious. Anglo-American philosophers seem to think any indication they have any knowledge of theology at all makes them suspect as proselytes and probably betrayers of the cause of empiricism.

      I've found theologians know much more about philosophy than Anglo-American philosophers do, while Continental philosophers are quite comfortable discussing theology. They don't seem to think knowledge of it equals approval; but the A-A school seems to fear being seen even taking religion seriously.

      And that all trickles down to the kids in the sandbox, rather like the ignorance of history becomes near-scientific fact, as Lessl pointed out.

  2. That is a terrific translation of Gregory's fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. Would you be so kind as to give me its source? Thanks.

    1. I'm sorry, I can't find my notes for this post. I don't remember where I got it. I know I have it on a thumb drive somewhere and will look for it.

  3. Thanks! I tried a number of searches but to no avail. Appreciate your help!

    1. I found it, here.