Alexander the Grape

Why is Alexander III of Macedon so often referred to as “Alexander the Great”? Some say he earned the title by his military victories, and others say that Alexander was great because he built a large empire. The most enduring legacy of Alexander, though, was not political or military. Alexander’s greatness comes from the establishment of a culture, called “Hellenistic,” that has shaped civilization and history for the last two dozen centuries.

Alexander’ father, Phillip II of Macedon, managed (through a combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers) to bring all the Greek city-states under his control, a feat no leader before him had accomplished. When Phillip was assassinated, a teen-aged Alexander inherited his father’s kingdom. Needing a task significant enough to maintain the unity of Greek and Macedonian entities, Alexander completed his father’s plans to conquer the Persian Empire. Phillip and Alexander could have chosen to expand to the west. They could have controlled the Mediterranean world, overthrowing Rome and Carthage and other Mediterranean cities. Their choice to expand instead to the east was already significant for future world history. But Persia had more wealth and power to grant its conquerors, and it was ripe for the picking. Moreover, Phillip and Alexander could point to the past Persian invasions of Greece—although they predated the birth of anyone alive at that time, and although the Persians lost—as reason enough to return the favor and invade Persia.

Alexander’s conquests took him into Anatolia (now the country of Turkey) and south along the Mediterranean coast. He accomplished the extremely difficult task of laying siege to Trye and capturing that powerful Phoenician city. He also fought the Philistine city of Gaza and razed it. Ancient sources say that Alexander visited Jerusalem and was welcomed into the city, although the accuracy of their accounts has been doubted by some researchers. Then Alexander was welcomed into Egypt, where he was treated not only as a conqueror but also as one of the gods.

Alexander and his army, having stripped the Persian Empire of its western lands, now set out against the Emperor, Darius III. Eventually, Darius was captured and killed. (Alexander married one of his daughters to solidify Alexander’s claim to the Persian throne.) Moving further east, Alexander first laid claim to the eastern parts of the Persian Empire, then tried to expand his power even beyond what the Persians controlled. Eventually, his army resisted the continuing adventure of conquest. One of his contemporary biographers depicts Alexander standing at a river in India, gazing across the river and weeping because land and people existed that he would never rule. Accepting the will of his soldiers, Alexander turned back to the west.

Stopping in Babylon, Alexander fell ill and died. Strong evidence suggests that he drank himself to death. Some historians, both ancient and modern, think he may have been poisoned. Others think he died of illness—malaria, botulism, and meningitis have all been proposed. Alexander had an infant son who should have inherited the empire. The generals of Alexander’s army agreed to divide the empire among themselves and rule it on behalf of Alexander IV until the lad was old enough to wield power himself. Mysteriously, the boy died before he could receive his inheritance, and the kingdoms of the generals remained in place for hundreds of years, until Roman power eventually picked them off, one by one.

With Alexander and his armies came Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science. Alexander ordered cities to be built in his conquered lands, bearing his name. Alexandria in Egypt, and other cities elsewhere, became centers of Greek culture surrounded by older African and Asian cultures. The family of Ptolemy in Egypt and of Seleucus in Syria maintained Greek culture while ruling over non-Greeks. Blending Greek thought with older patterns produced a civilization called Hellenistic. This civilization preserved the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, and other Greeks without erasing the religions, traditions, and cultures of western Asia and northern Africa. Even the Jewish people were transformed by Hellenistic culture, as groups like the Pharisees examined the writings of Moses and the prophets in the fashion of the Axial Age, seeking how to please God through personal obedience and piety, overlooking the more relationship-oriented words of God who had based his covenant on the proposition, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Other nations have produced leaders whom they called “Great.” Few have done more than Alexander, in his brief lifespan, to alter the course of history and to shape the thinking of many peoples and cultures. J.

Nobody expects the American Inquisition

Galileo (1564-1642) was celebrated from 1650 to 2000 as a genius who challenged the scientific thinking of his time, using his own observation to correct long-standing mistakes in physics and astronomy. He affirmed the earlier work of Nicholas Copernicus, whose writings indicated that the earth is not stationed at the center of the universe, but instead revolves once a day and travels once a year around the sun. Galileo was challenged by church researchers who quoted a half dozen Bible verses out of context to indicate that the earth is stationary and unmoving. Galileo never said or believed that the Bible is untrue. He simply indicated that the Bible is not a science textbook and that its description of the earth remaining in place is a poetic statement, not a scientific declaration. The real challenge to Galileo’s teaching came from scientists affirming the astronomy of Aristotle and Ptolemy, neither of whom was a Bible scholar (or even a Christian). Galileo became famous for his defiance against the prevailing opinions of his day. He suffered house arrest (but no further punishment) for is stubbornness. During the modern era of western civilization, Galileo was frequently regarded as a hero who risked his safety and reputation to speak the truth, defending genuine science from its detractors.

Galileo can no longer be considered a hero. Postmodern western thought has returned to the insistence that the majority must be right and that the most prominent scientific authorities may and should tell the rest of us which science to believe and which to ignore. No doubt in another generation or less, Galileo’s name will be reduced to one of the apparently nonsense words in Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody just like Scaramouch and fandango.

How else can one explain the strange ways science is being defined and practiced at the present time. COVID-19 has not been around long enough for scientists and medical professionals to know whether those who have recovered from the disease maintain resistance to reinfection—all experiments that indicate that natural immunity is acquired from infection and recovery are dismissed as preliminary and uncertain. On the other hand, vaccines developed since awareness of COVID-19 happened are treated as thoroughly tested and totally reliable. Accounts of people contracting COVID after inoculation are dismissed as anecdotal, and at the same time we are assured that those who did get sick after inoculation were not as sick as they would have been had they not received the vaccine. Those who have been vaccinated are free to go maskless, but those not vaccinated must continue to wear their masks—not for any good reason, but merely because some scientific experts say so.

In fact, it seems that our medical officials—those who make proclamations telling us how to live our lives—suffer from the same problem as the legendary man who borrowed his neighbor’s bucket and was then sued for returning the bucket in damaged condition. The accused offered a three-part defense: first, he never had the bucket in question; second, it was already damaged when he received it; and third, when he returned it there was nothing wrong with it.

Not only in medicine do we see such contradictory logic. Political science has fallen prey to the same peculiar thinking. We have been told that the Presidential election of 2020 was the fairest and least corrupt election in all of history. Statistical anomalies about the vote count must be ignored. Efforts to study voting patterns from last November are labeled as “bogus.” Americans are not to be suspicious that, given situations resulting from the pandemic, unprecedented voting results came from a few urban areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. In each case, community organizers were allowed and encouraged to register voters, assist those voters in applying for absentee ballots, assist the same voters in filling out their ballots, deliver those ballots to be counted, and then oversee the counting of those same ballots. These individuals, on the day that the ballots were counted, even filled in missing information on the absentee ballots that would otherwise have invalidated the ballots. In the precincts where those organizers worked, heavy vote totals favored Candidate Biden, while in all other precincts of the country vote totals resembled those of the 2016 election. Yet we are told that questioning those results is unscientific, undemocratic, anti-American, racist, and otherwise deplorable. Moreover, state legislatures that try to correct the shortcomings that have been perceived in the regulations rushed into law on account of the pandemic are likewise accused of being racist, undemocratic, and otherwise worthy of scorn, insult, and hatred.

And so it goes. I read today that true science proves that gender is a function of the brain, not of the chromosomes or the organs one possesses at birth. Fraudulent studies that affirm global climate change are gently ignored, while studies that reveal that climate change may be part of the planet’s natural cycles, may be exaggerated in the minds of some scientists and their audiences, and may even be beneficial to some environments—all these are dismissed as unscientific and unacceptable in the post-modern world.

I do not use the word “post-modern” as an insult. Many things about modern thinking bother me; many things about post-modern thinking appeal to me. All the same, if post-modern science means trusting a small elite of self-proclaimed authorities, ignoring all the evidence that contradict their claims, then post-modern science is not for me. Give me Galileo and his stubborn adherence to the facts. Genuine facts beat fake science every time. J.

More Heidegger

Last night I finished reading Martin Heidegger’s classic philosophy text, Being and Time. (That makes 98 books finished before the end of June 2021, which means I am on roughly the same reading pace that I was last year, but no one but me is measuring.) Heidegger’s mention of “falling prey” prompted me to write a recent post, which led to a comment by Slim Jim (whose blog I strongly recommend) that he would like to read some of Heidegger’s work. I was going to respond to his comment, but I think that instead I will share my impression of Heidegger with the world in general.

As a philosopher working in the first half of the twentieth century, Heidegger had a long tradition preceding him, one that had thoroughly inquired into many of the key questions that philosophy generally addresses. At the same time, many philosophical questions were beginning to be handed off to various branches of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, and so on. Heidegger found himself returning to some of the questions that many people considered solved already in the work of Plato and Aristotle: what does it mean for someone or something to exist? What does it mean to speak of existence? Is existence a quality like size or shape or color? The study of existence (technically called ontology) opened new doors for Heidegger to explore. His entire career consisted of various approaches to the meaning of existence and how a definition of existence shapes all the other philosophical questions we might ask about ourselves and about the world around us.

For others inclined, like Slim Jim, to go online or to the library and tackle some of Heidegger’s work, I have four suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Like most professional philosophers, Martin Heidegger used a carefully defined vocabulary in which some common words have very narrow and specific meanings. Other words you find in Heidegger’s work are used only by philosophers, and many of the words he uses, Heidegger himself invented. Philosophers do not write this way became they are trying to be difficult or to look smart. They do this so that, as they write, they say exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Not only is the vocabulary challenging, but the sentence structure is also more complex in Heidegger and in most other philosophers than it is in (for example) a typical novel or newspaper story or Reader’s Digest article. The reason for such a complex style of writing matches that of the difficult vocabulary: Heidegger and other philosophers are trying to make sure that they write exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Because of the difficult vocabulary and structure, the writing of philosophers such as Heidegger must be read slowly and repeatedly. Reading the same work five times is considered typical for the reader who wants to grasp what the writer is saying. (I will address this from a different angle in a few seconds.)
  • When you have taken the trouble to learn a philosopher’s vocabulary, to adjust to that philosopher’s writing style, to read slowly, and to read that philosopher’s work several times, you may find that the philosopher’s conclusions are startlingly simple. Perhaps they even seem like common sense. This does not mean that the philosopher wasted his or her time spent in writing or wasted your time spent in reading. The philosopher may have reached a conclusion that you already believed, but the philosopher has taken the difficult road to reach that conclusion. The philosopher’s conclusion is not a guess; it is based on long and deep thinking, consideration of many other options that never occurred to you, and considerable caution to make sure that no false steps were taken at any part of the journey.

My senior year of college, I was one of a team of students who came early to campus to help orient the incoming freshmen. College orientation means more than standing in the quad and pointing east. (The term, however, comes from the practice of observing the sunrise at the beginning of the day, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and using that information to identify north, south, and west.) During that orientation weekend, I had ten or twelve freshmen sitting in my dormitory room where we had a scheduled visit from their faculty advisor. Standing in my room, leaning against my closet door, this professor told the new students that they should consider college a full-time job. It was not enough to attend classes and do a little homework; they should expect to spend hours outside the classroom reading the assigned work, researching and writing, and thinking about what they were learning. One of the points he made was that, to understand a book well, one must read that book five times.

After the professor left, the freshmen asked me whether it is true that they had to read their books five times to understand them. “It depends upon the book,” I told them. I reminded them that this professor taught philosophy, where the five-times rule is generally true. Other books might be grasped in a first or second reading. With many more years to consider the five-times rule, though, I have come to the conclusion that any good book requires and deserves multiple readings. The books of the Bible require multiple readings—the five-time rule is a worthy guide for the Bible. Great literature needs repeated reading. Many science and history textbooks need more than one reading before they start to make sense. In our busy, hurried world, most of us read a document (on paper or on a screen) only once. Even our own writing, we often read once and then click “publish.” Good writing merits re-reading. When we want our writing to be good, we must read it again and again, verifying that we have written what we want to say—no more and no less.

Two little things (aside from “falling prey”) captured my attention in the last part of Heidegger’s book. One was his examination of conscience. Normal people (excluding psychopaths or sociopaths) have a conscience, an inner voice that warns us when we are wrong. Heidegger asks what we call that inner voice when it persistently reminds us that we have been wrong: is that a “bad conscience” or a “good conscience”? Stop and think about that for a moment. As a Christian, I have an answer Heidegger did not propose: a bad conscience reminds us of our guilt and keeps on warning us we were wrong but offers no hope to change our condition; a good conscience also reminds us of our guilt but leads us to repent of our sin, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and to trust his promise of forgiveness.

Dealing with the themes of being and time, Heidegger spoke about the items on display in a museum. We often say that we look at them to learn about the past. But, as Heidegger reminds his readers, we see them in the museum only because they exist in the present. Their meaning and significance may be altered now that they are displayed in a museum—they are not, in that sense, identical to what they were when they existed as everyday items in common usage. But they cannot bring us into their past because our being, our existence, our Da-sein, is seeing them only in the present, not in our personal past.

That’s enough deep thinking for tonight. J.

Juneteenth (and holidays in general)

I have no reason to complain about Juneteenth. I really don’t. If my employer has decided (as it has) to give me a paid day off of work in the middle of June, that’s fine. I’ll take the day off of work and accept the paycheck. My employer can congratulate itself on making the decision to recognize Juneteenth a year ago, before the United States Congress got into the act of declaring Juneteenth an official American holiday. (Not that my employer added another paid holiday to the year—we still have ten paid days off of work. Last year Veterans Day was made a paid holiday, when in previous years Presidents’ Day was a paid holiday. So they merely rearranged the calendar. Other than that, they are doing nothing different.)

The problem is not even that Juneteenth has dubious historical value. It began as an African American commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, federal soldiers announced to slaves in Texas that slavery had been banned. Setting the slaves free in Texas was not the end of slavery in the United States, though. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announced in 1862 and made effective January 1, 1863, freed slaves only in states that were rebelling against the US government and taking part in the Confederacy. Slavery existed, and remained legal, in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware in 1863. Lincoln chose not to free the slaves in those four states because he did not want them to join the Confederacy. Missouri and Maryland outlawed slavery before the end of the Civil War; Kentucky and Delaware did not. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ended slavery in all the states, but it did not go into effect until it was formally approved in December 1865. Even though Kentucky and Delaware did not approve the 13th Amendment, they were subject to its power, and so slaves were freed in those two states by the end of the year 1865—months after freedom was announced in Texas in the middle of June of that year.

But the Fourth of July is an equally artificial holiday. Not much of significance happened to create or approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but the date was selected for Independence Day because the founders of the United States wanted a celebration to mark our ideas of freedom and human rights. Granted that the founders of the nation were all wealthy white men. Granted that human rights to women, blacks, and other minorities were only gradually established and written into law in the years following 1776. Independence Day is still a holiday for all Americans; it is not only a white holiday. None of the ten federal holidays existing before approval of Juneteenth are white holidays. (For the record, they are: New Year’s Day, Dr. King’s birthday, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.) In many places, Columbus Day is already being replaced by commemorations of Native American history and culture. But Memorial Day remembers all soldiers who died in battle, male and female, black and white and every other culture. Veterans’ Day honors all who served in the armed forces. Presidents’ Day mostly remembers the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but they were presidents of the entire country, not just of white Americans.

Someone might suggest that Thanksgiving and Christmas are primarily white holidays. First, though, Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus, who is not white—he was born a west Asian Jew. Second, these holidays have significance for all Americans, but especially for Christians—and Christianity is not a white religion. It began among the Asian Jews; two significant non-Jewish converts to Christianity, according to the book of Acts, were an Italian centurion and an Ethiopian government official. So Christianity belongs to people of all cultures and ethnic groups. Moreover, according to this survey, blacks in the United States are more likely than whites to believe in God, to attend church, to pray, to study the Bible, and to respect the Bible as God’s Word. So Christmas and Thanksgiving can hardly be labeled white holidays.

I approve of special days set aside for the various cultures and ethnic groups present in the United States. I delight in noting the Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Octoberfest, along with Juneteenth. These days should be celebrations, commemorations of their various cultures, and open to all Americans to join the celebration. I see no reason any of them should be paid days off from work. These days are opportunities for schools, libraries, and other cultural centers to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and to remind all of us of what makes each culture special. We have seen from Memorial Day and Labor Day what happens to a federal holiday. People are paid to stay home from work. They gather for cookouts and other festive events. They travel to parks and beaches and other recreational spots. Meanwhile, hospitals remain open. Police officers and fire fighters remain on call. Retail outlets—especially fast food restaurants—serve more customers than usual, requiring them to schedule more of their employees than usual. That shift is especially ironic on Labor Day.

I propose a tweak to the observance of national holidays. We should, as a nation, continue to recognize annual celebrations for our various cultures and ethnic groups, but none of them should be paid days off of work. Instead, they should be opportunities to learn from one another about diversity in our land and to wish one another a happy St. Patrick’s Day, a happy Cinco de Mayo, a happy Juneteenth, and a happy Octoberfest. At the same time, we need to add a Service Day, perhaps in early August, one month before Labor Day. This would be a holiday, not for office workers and government employees, but for retail workers and others paid to serve customers. Stores and restaurants would be closed, and service workers would be encouraged to spend time with their families and to enjoy parks and the outdoors. The rest of us would gain appreciation for service workers through this annual reminder of their work, and it wouldn’t hurt us to know that, once a year, Walmart and McDonalds and all those places we take for granted the rest of the year are closed to give their employees a well-deserved vacation.

It all makes sense to me. J.

Watch for falling prey

Words have meaning. We use words to communicate with one another. Often the meaning of our words is shaped by context; a word might have a narrow, technical meaning in one context and a more general meaning in a different context. A phrase might be radically different in meaning depending upon where and how it is used. This can result in confusion, and sometimes it can result in humor. A humorous example is coming, but a certain amount of context must be provided first to arrive at the humor I wish to share.

One of the things I loved about college was taking four classes at the same time, being exposed to different thoughts from different fields, moving from one branch of knowledge to another as I read assigned classwork and as I researched material for different papers I was required to write. On many occasions, the same topic would arise the same week in two or three different classes, so I was required to consider that topic from differing points of view. Because I loved that experience, I have recreated it in my private post-college life. I don’t read one book, finish it, and start another. Instead I have a stack of books from which I read each day. When I finish one book in the stack, I reshelve it and choose another book of the same genre. My stack might be six or seven books high, and if I read twenty or thirty pages from each book, I make my way through them like a college student taking several different courses and learning about various things at the same time.

Last night I had finished twenty pages from Aristotle’s “History of Animals”—part of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World collection—and wanted to glance at something light before jumping into Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I happened to grab a book of humorous pieces by Dave Barry, newspaper columns he had written in the 1990s, and I spent a few minutes cleansing my mental palette with that light reading before diving into the profound examinations of Heidegger.

A cleansed palette might not be ready for Heidegger. Here is a selection of where I began last night: “The formal existential totality of the ontological structural whole of Da-sein must thus be formulated in the following structure: The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-oneself already in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the word “care,” which is used in a purely ontological and existential way. Any ontically intended tendency of being, such as worry or carefreeness, is ruled out. Since being-in-the-world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as “taking care” of them…. Care not only characterizes existentiality, abstracted from facticity and falling prey, but encompasses the unity of these determinations of being….”

Nothing funny there, I know, and Heidegger had no intention of being humorous with those words. As a philosopher, he uses technical terms such as “ontological” and “existential,” as well as his own favorite word, “Da-sein,” which he uses to search for the core of what it means to exist. As I wrote a few days ago, “What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you?” That’s the kind of question Heidegger is asking, and is trying to answer, in the four hundred pages of Being and Time. But with a taste of Dave Barry’s writing lingering in my mind, I could not help but visualize “innerworldly beings” in a comic way. Nor could I resist an over-the-top application of Heidegger’s assertion that worry and carefreeness are ruled out. But the piece de resistance of this paragraph was Heidegger’s reference to falling prey. He is describing, of course, the danger of becoming a victim, of our being (or Da-sein) facing threats from other thinking beings in our world, a group he rather aptly describes as “the they.” (I was already considering an entire post, inspired by Heidegger, about “the they”—you know who he means, “the they” who say things that no one we know has said, “the they” who are running the world, even though none of us knows who “they” are. Heidegger had a problem with Them already one hundred years ago.

But, with a dose of Dave Barry still in my mind, I read the phrase “falling prey” and immediately pictured white-tailed deer dropping from above. I could even picture a Far Side cartoon with a road sign on the side of a mountain that says, “Watch for falling prey,” while deer are tumbling down the side of the mountain toward the road.

Another phrase from Heidegger that has stuck with me is not his own invention. He quotes a poem by Holderlin which contains the line, “We are a sign that is not read.” I spent part of one evening trying to create a meme which puts those eight words on a highway sign, but I was not happy with the results. “Watch for falling prey” would be funnier anyhow, but I still want to contemplate further the significance of those words, “We are a sign that is not read.” J.

Hittites, Canaanites, and Phoenicians

The world of western Asia and the Mediterranean basin was packed full of civilizations in ancient times. I have already written about Egypt and about the Minoan civilization on Crete. The latter might have produced the Philistine civilization that bordered upon Israel for many centuries. Further east in Mesopotamia were the cities of Sumer, one of the world’s earliest civilizations. One of the world’s first empires, the Akkadians, arose in northern Mesopotamia and conquered all the Sumerian cities. Later the Sumerians were displaced by Semites, who adopted the Sumerian system of writing (“cuneiform”) and other Sumerian traditions. Hammurabi, famous for codifying the laws of Babylon and publishing them to be read by Babylon’s cities, was Semitic. So was Abraham, who left the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and traveled to Canaan because of commands and promises that were given to Abraham by the Lord.

To the north of Mesopotamia, in the land now called Turkey, arose an empire known as the Hittites. (Turks would not arrive in that part of the world until much later in history. At this time, the Turks were in central Asia, neighbors of China.) During the Enlightenment, skeptics mocked conservative Christians for trusting the Bible’s accounts of early history. The Bible mentioned the Hittites, but no other evidence could be found to prove that Hittites ever existed. That changed in the nineteenth century when archaeologists discovered remains of Hittite cities and began to coordinate their discoveries with unidentified nations mentioned in Egyptian and other records. More than three thousand years ago, the Hittites ruled a powerful empire. For some generations, they were among the rivals of Egypt and other ancient empires. Like the Sumerians and other ancient nations, they lost political power and blended into the moving populations of the world. No one knows today whether he or she has any ancestors who were Sumerian or Hittite. But from the time of Abraham until the time of Samuel, the Hittite Empire was important in west Asian history and culture.

Of course in Canaan, Abraham met the Canaanites. Like the Sumerians and the Greeks, the Canaanites maintained a confederation of separate governments, each in its own city, while sharing among themselves a common culture, language, and religion. The Lord found the religion of the Canaanites especially offensive. Not only did the Canaanites worship false gods; their worship included human sacrifice and ritual prostitution. Canaanite religion, in some ways, appears almost a deliberate mockery of God’s plan of salvation—a plan which centers around the sacrifice of his Son, and a plan in which the Son of God claims God’s people as his Bride. The descendants of Abraham were told to remove the Canaanites from the land. The Israelites were God’s tool to bring punishment upon the Canaanites. Israel was warned not to imitate Canaanite religion, but the people of Israel did not heed that warning. Therefore, the Lord eventually used Assyrian and Babylonian armies to punish his people as he had used his people to bring judgment on the Canaanites.

One nation, closely related to the Canaanites, escaped God’s wrath and punishment, at least for a time. The Greeks called them Phoenicians, and the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet for their own use. This adaptation developed into the Latin alphabet still used today in English, Spanish, French, German, and many other languages. Reading skills in these languages are called “phonics,” in memory of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians did not compete with the Israelites, because the Israelites focused on the land the Lord had promised to Abraham, but the Phoenicians focused on commerce and settlements throughout the Mediterranean world. Not only did the Phoenicians trade with Egypt, Minoan civilization (before it fell) and the emerging powers in Greece; it also established colonies in southern Europe and northern Africa, all the way to Spain and Morocco. Important Phoenician cities near Israel were Tyre and Sidon. Kings David and Solomon had friendly relations with the king of Tyre. Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, came from Tyre. One of their famous colonies in north Africa was Carthage, which would become Rome’s greatest rival in the western Mediterranean, leading to the Punic Wars (again, deriving their name from the Phoenicians).

Later prophets spoke against the wealth and arrogance of the Phoenicians. Ezekiel’s sermon about the king of Tyre includes descriptions that are often applied to Lucifer, the fallen angel who became Satan, chief among God’s enemies. That famous sermon of Ezekiel is echoed in Revelation 18 and 19, in which the fallen city is called “Babylon,” but represents false religion throughout the world.)

 Tyre, built on an island, withstood many sieges before the city finally was captured by Cyrus, the Persian Emperor. Alexander the Great also conquered Tyre, and it has since been part of great empires including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks. Since the World Wars in the twentieth century, Tyre has been part of the small country of Lebanon. The region has seen repeated episodes of turbulence and violence, much of it related to the wars against Israel fought by its neighbors. Such conflict reminds the historian that, as much as politics and technology seem to change, some things about people remain the same since ancient times. J.

A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

Double secret probation

When I contracted COVID last month, I was regulated to remain in quarantine (with family members who happened to have the same illness at the same time as me). The official government quarantine was ten days from when I first noticed symptoms; my workplace established a fourteen day quarantine. The Memorial Day weekend helped to close the gap between those two periods, and I was feeling better long before I was allowed to leave the house. I was able to devote some of my energy into my writing, which had been flagging lately. I also returned to work Wednesday of last week with new strength and energy to devote to my tasks in that arena.

The burst of hopeful energy did not last very long.

Waiting for me in my email was a statement about the company’s policy. This statement said that all employees not vaccinated for COVID must wear a mast at all times on company property. This replaces the pre-vaccine policy that had us masked when around other people but permitted to remove our masks when alone in our workspace. The policy states that one infraction leads to a written warning, a second infraction leads to a final warning, and a third infraction leads to immediate termination. The same policy also indicates that the company cannot demand that anyone receive the vaccine, nor that any employee can be shamed or bullied or singled out for not being vaccinated. But those who are vaccinated are free not to wear masks (or to wear them, if they so desire), while the rest of us must wear our masks or will lose our jobs. Not that we are being shamed or bullied or anything.

When I had been at work for an hour, I had a meeting with our Human Resources Director and with my manager. The HR director was very sweet and syrupy, as is her nature, and was also very firm that I had been naughty for getting sick and that I had better be aware of the company policy. In fact, that same afternoon, I received my written warning because I had arrived at work and been at my desk without a mask that same day.

I’ve known for a long time that my job was hanging by a thread. The powers that be already drastically reduced the budget for my department, forcing some people to be downsized out of a job and others who left not to be replaced. If anything, the virus crisis slowed the procedures that were aiming to cut us off the tree. Now, it appears, they see an opportunity to empty another chair, and I expect that I will be watched carefully for the slightest slip or mistake. It’s reached the point that I’m extra careful driving to work, as if a traffic infraction could terminate my position and have me searching for another job.

Of course I am searching for another job, but nothing has come of that yet.

What frustrates me the most is not the bullying and shaming, but the lack of science involved in this episode. Science has demonstrated that people who are sickened by viruses and recover gain immunity to those viruses. The entire point of vaccination is that people receive a mild form of the virus so their bodies create antibodies to immunize them against the virus. Vaccines are called “artificial active immunization,” but getting sick and recovering is simply “active immunization,” or sometimes (by contrast with vaccination) “natural active immunization.”

Some people argue that COVID hasn’t been studied long enough for scientists to know how long natural active immunization remains in effect. On the other hand, the medical professionals who interviewed me on the telephone said that I should not get the vaccine for at least three months because of possible complications involving the antibodies already produced in my body. Other studies have found that antibodies are still present in people who recovered from COVID ten or eleven months ago. A small number of people have been sickened a second time by COVID. A small number of people—but a larger proportion of the people in question—have been sickened by COVID after being vaccinated. Science indicates that I am less likely to deliver the virus to other people now that I have been sick and have recovered. But the politics and economics of medicine, along with the agenda of the people at charge at my workplace, are clearly bigger than the science I learned in school.

I hope to be able to find time and energy to keep my writing projects going. I hope to find another job before I get kicked out the door at my present workplace. All I can do at the moment is trust that the Lord has a plan for me, and that things will work out fine according to His schedule. J.

Minoan civilization

Before Greek civilization developed in the northeastern Mediterranean basin—thus, long before the important Axial Age that happened about twenty-five centuries ago—an island civilization centered in Crete flourished for many generations. They traded products with their neighbors, including the Egyptians and Asians on the Mediterranean coast. They built large cities, complete with palaces and temples. They developed a plumbing system—always an indication of advanced civilization. They produced beautiful artwork. They had a written language, mostly untranslated, although a few inventory lists have been deciphered. Modern historians call this the Minoan civilization, since we have no idea what they called themselves.

Hints of their relationship with early Greeks are revealed in Greek mythology. The story of Theseus tells of a time that young men and women were taken from their home cities in Greece and brought to a foreign capital, where they were imprisoned in a Labyrinth and eventually killed and eaten by a monster—half-bull and half-human—called the Minotaur. Artwork in Crete suggests a slave class of entertainers who were not fed to a monster but who entertained the wealthy and powerful by gymnastic feats. They leapt over a live bull and performed maneuvers on its back, rather like the gymnastic routines involving the vaulting horse and the pommel horse, except that the ancient entertainers used a live animal.

Some Greek records also describe a civilization called Atlantis. Plato says he learned about Atlantis from Egyptian historians. Atlantis was said to be a rich and powerful nation, but the pride of its people led to its downfall—Atlantis was destroyed by natural forces, including earthquakes and floods, and fell into the sea. The legend of Atlantis may reflect the reality of Minoan Crete, although Plato’s Atlantis was larger than Crete. It was located west of Spain and Morocco, in the ocean that now bears its name. Greek historians even insisted that the Atlantic Ocean was not navigable because the wreckage of lost Atlantis made the waterway too shallow for boats.

Much evidence indicates that a massive volcanic eruption—one which caused earthquakes and tsunamis—occurred in the Mediterranean Sea about the time that the Minoan civilization collapsed. Historians cannot agree on the date—even the century—when the volcano erupted, but such an event would have impacted the Minoans on Crete and on nearby islands. Many of them would have died. Some would have tried to rebuild—and, in fact, after its collapse, the Minoan ruins were repaired, but eventually the depleted kingdom was added to the growing Greek civilization. Yet others would have sought a new home, and that also appears to be the case. Once again, though, historians do not agree on the details that appear to follow the destruction of Minoan cities.

Egyptian records describe a group of would-be settlers who tried to make a home for themselves in the Egyptian delta. Egyptian force resisted their settlement, and they moved up the coast until they found a land they could call their own. Archaeological evidence from Canaan indicates that various invaders forced their way into Canaan. Some of those invaders were, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel. But another group became established in southwestern Canaan around the same time. They built five cities, demonstrating skill they brought with them from their earlier home. Although at first the Israelites had some success clearing the land promised to them by the Lord, they later shared the land with Canaanites and other cultures. The five cities of the Philistines remained long after the time of the Judges, dwelling on land that had been assigned to the tribe of Dan (which chose to relocate to the north, according to the Bible) and to Judah and Simeon.

This history does not end in Biblical times. When the British Empire laid claim to the western Asian lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea after the First World War—land that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before the Great War—they called that land Palestine, a corruption of the earlier name Philistine. The Palestinian natives were of mixed ancestry, including Arab and other ethnic origins; perhaps some of them are descendants of the Philistines from long ago. After the Second World War, the British divided the land between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Israel had to win a war against its neighbors to preserve its independence, and in the process the government of the Palestinians collapsed. Rule of their land was taken by Jordan for almost twenty years, but in the 1967 War Israel captured that land and held it for military security. In all the years since 1967, Israel has not fully incorporated its captured land and its population. Israel is a democracy, and fully incorporating the Palestinian land and people would make the Jews a minority in their own country, apt to be voted out of power. Instead, they have negotiated some autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip—that piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean that once included Gaza and four other Philistine cities. So the tension between Israel and its neighbors that was known under Samuel and David remains a reality down to the present. J.

Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.