Aeschylus, “The Persians” & war and blasphemy


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Can believers in an eternal and universal God, particularly the spiritual descendants of Abraham, wage war against each other without committing blasphemy?”

    Well, the easy way out is to look and see if this particular eternal and universal God ever told the spiritual decendants of Abraham to go to war. Once you realize that, oh yeah, He said this like He had some sort of post-encephalitic damage repetition problem, you then have to deal with either the question of whether God has significantly changed since then (how many of these answers really help?) or whether God was not, in fact, manifesting Himself in said passages (somewhat more troubling but of a significantly different category of “troubling” than we were wallowing in for an affirmative answer to the last question).

    It’s almost easier to deal with a partisan, bloodthirsty God. He comes out and says “kill this people, women too, children too… babies too.” You don’t have to worry about “just war” or any of that philosophical crap. “Hey, God said it, I believe it, that does it.”

    It’s when you get to believe in a God that loves you as an individual, as He loves everyone on the planet, that you start to get into serious trouble.

    We need more partisan gods. (Or, I suppose, our opponents need a sufficiently close to zero number of them to reflect our own number of such open-minded gods.)Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      The Old Testament is bewildering to me. But I feel like it’s supposed to be that way. I think of the Emily Dickinson like that “the truth must dazzle gradually, or every eye be blind.” I still wonder what is the point I’m supposed to take away from all these wars and killing in those early books. I remember someone joking that the message was “Don’t screw with the well-connected.” Maybe it’s just establishing that this is a powerful and fearsome god, which is the point of all sorts of ancient literature, and then the message follows from that. The fear of God being the beginning of wisdom.

      And Yahweh does seems to change. Erich Fromm wrote about this. Even by Kings I, He seems to have changed his attitude towards humans. And the New Testament is such a shift in perception of the human/Divine relationship as to make one wonder if Christians should even be reading the Old Testament, aside from maybe the Commandments.

      I don’t know how people work out the question of war. The Old Testament God calls for it, but then you’re talking about protecting a wandering, endangered, but chosen people. It’s also got to do with His jealousy- it’s often along the lines of “Go wipe those people out- they’re worshiping Cthulu.” I don’t know how people make sense of going to war with other people who worship the same God, even given the Old Testament. “Go wipe those people out- they’re worshiping me, but by a different book that says the same things as your book, but in this case is wrong”?

      Not to mention the fact that Jesus says to love your enemies. I don’t think this is supposed to mean hypothetically love your enemies while fighting them, or turn the other cheek, but keep your hand on your gun. I mean, the central image in Christianity is Christ praying to God to forgive his enemies “for they know not what they do” while they’re in the process of putting him to death.

      I don’t mean to sound like I’m bashing believers, because I’m definitely not. I’m just saying that, as someone who finds a great deal to admire in the Scriptures, I wonder if it’s not a more serious and appropriate viewpoint to look at war as always given to blasphemy and whether Aeschylus wasn’t on to something there.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        What God evolves into by the end of the Gospel of John, however, strikes me as somewhat incompatible with the God of the Hebrew Bible.

        The God of Genesis 2, for example, reads to me like an Earth God (and the God of Genesis 1 is a Sky God). By the time we get to both the Gospel of John and First John, we’re dealing with something absolutely different. Not even a Sky God, by this point. An “Idea” God, if you will. It’s at this point that God becomes immutable, unchangable, and unchanging… even though He did do all of that “flood” stuff (hey, that’s why pencils have erasers) He is also pure light and there is no darkness in Him.

        Of course, the God of the Hebrews was a God of a people who were masters of their own destiny (give or take a Pharoah here or a road trip there). The God of Jesus was a God of slaves. That probably has much to do with it as well.

        Hrm. That dynamic could very well bring us back to blasphemy.

        When the Hebrews were on top, they had a God that said “yeah, kill that family and take their land and use it for My glory rather than the glory of their crappy little gods”… and when the slaves were being put to the sword, they had a God that said “turn the other cheek, we are all brethren, do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.Report

        • Avatar Rufus says:

          I know what you mean about the similarities between the early books- really the whole Pentateuch- and the Earth gods. There’s a passage in which Yahweh sits in the doorway of someone’s tent, for instance, that seems more like something from the Iliad than how most religions now understand God.

          I don’t know if it has to bring us to blasphemy though. Is it blasphemous to see God as dynamic and changing? On one hand, it could be. I think you could get to something like Hegel, where the “spirit” is maybe too dynamic to offer eternal truths- although I think Hegel sees more as evolving to a more perfect knowledge. On the other hand, a dynamic view might just reflect a better understanding of the cosmos.

          Also, my understanding of the Scriptures was always that you have both chronos and kairos, or time and sacred timelessness. I’m not really sure where I’m going with that… But I’d say that the historical reality and the experience of the numinous mix together, so that God might look different to a wandering tribesman than to a persecuted slave.

          Of course, another way to look at it is that humans see the Divine as through a glass darkly. So, certainly human understanding on earth will always be imperfect. The idea of a literalist Bible always struck me as implying the writers weren’t just divinely inspired, but somehow possessed, which seems really incongruous with what’s in there.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            No, I think I didn’t say what I meant very well.

            The blasphemy is this:
            When a people is on top of the world, God says “do whatever you want”.
            When a people is enslaved, God says “you are all brethren, people need to be kind, virtue is found in being nice to slaves.”

            Or, far less elegantly, when a people is in the majority, God says “the filibuster is an unconstitutional abuse of power.” When a people is in the minority, God says “the filibuster is an essential tradition that must be maintained for the sake of the Republic”.Report

            • Avatar Rufus says:

              Yeah, I guess I’m also not the best judge of blasphemy.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I am pretty hardcore atheist and see the concept of “god” as an externalization of one’s own moral intuitions. How are you inclined to act towards others? How do you want others to treat you?

                Saying “I’m inclined this way” doesn’t carry a whole lot of moral force. Saying “God wants me to act this way, and you to act that way” holds a great deal of moral force.

                The problem is that the game is given away when God changes his mind on a regular basis and always to the benefit of the speaker. Mohammed gives a great example of this… I think it was Ayesha who mocked him for going away to talk to Gabriel and Gabriel always (ALWAYS) came back on the side of Mohammed. Even over trivialities.

                When it comes to war, we can always hide behind, well, they aren’t *REALLY* descendants of Abraham, really. The Jews, after all, denied Christ. The Christians, after all, denied Mohammed. The Muslims, after all, were taken in by a charlatan. They may have some superficial similarities but…

                Hell, even within a religion. There’s an old joke about people taking a tour of heaven and they walk through and meet the Catholics, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, so on and so forth and then the guide tells everyone to hush for the next part… the look over a hill and see Southern Baptists. “Why are we being quiet?” “They think that they’re the only ones here.”

                I have relatives, for example, who went to Ireland to witness to Catholics.

                I suppose that the argument could be made that the suggestion that the Southern Baptists are the only ones doing it the right way and the Catholics don’t have enough of the water of life to make it into heaven is a very blasphemous sentiment (“Faith” being the sibboleth)… and I’ve definitely heard that Universal Reconciliation is a blasphemous notion.

                From this particular vantage point, having no insight into the mind of God at all, it seems to me that “blasphemy” is a useful condemnation tool used by people who have these moral intuitions and want to denigrate the moral intuitions of others. It’s not enough to say “you’re inclined differently than I am inclined”, it’s probably not enough to say “you’re wrong!”

                If you really want to pack a punch, you have to point out how offended God is.Report

              • Avatar Rufus says:

                Yeah, I think that’s what I was getting at was that it sort of requires gods that don’t take sides to recognize blasphemy. Because the Persians in Aeschylus (and actually sort of in Herodotus too) recognize right away that you can kill as many people as you want, but if you violate a temple, you’ve screwed up.

                It just occurred to me that I can’t think of a war where the subject even came up. But I’m not really in the sort of religious circles where it might. Say, for example, with bombing Dresden, did people think, “Okay, well Hitler’s clearly not got any moral intuition, so that extends to the Germans”? I mean, surely they must have bombed some cathedrals too. Or do believers not think that something like violating a church is blasphemy, but saying certain things is? I’m just asking because I don’t know. On Thursday, I’ll ask the priest who I meet up with to discuss the Bible. He’s used to me having too many questions.

                I will say that, when I was living in Toronto, we had a cathedral near us that was decommissioned and turned into condos, which I guess was okay (I’m starting to think condos are blasphemous anyway). But the posters for the condos read, “Live here! It’s sinfully luxurious!” or some such nonsense and I remember thinking, okay, maybe that’s a step too far.Report

              • Avatar Rufus says:

                Also, I guess what I find interesting about the Aeschylus is that the Greek gods seem somehow very impersonal to me, but they care about their temples. Meanwhile, the monotheistic God is posited as much more personal, but I can’t remember even thinking that war probably does involve a great deal of sin and blasphemy, although of course it would.Report

        • Avatar Bob Cheeks says:

          I frequent these pages for the erudition oft presented by Jaybird and his perspicuous analysis.
          Consequently, it is something of a disappointment when JB’s usually close and objective analysis derails into a mimicking of that “climate of opinion” that has resulted in the dominance of a world-immanent consciousness.

          Insofar as JB’s criticism of the Judeo-Christian God allow me this point for consideration: Voegelin, in his final work, In Search of Order, tells us that the singular aspect of the creation myth (story) is the (perfect) relationship between the language of truth and the “truth of language in reality.” And, here “reality” is explicated as an act of divine mythopoesis that is revealed as truth when “it evokes the responsive myth of man’s experience.” The Creation Story reveals a cosmos spoken into existence by God.

          That which concerns JB, what he interprets as a changing God, is in fact the movement of the consciousness of language through periods of time in which that consciousness is undergoing tremendous differentiations. One example is of course the emergence of the Metaxical apperception of the psyche Voegelin frequently spoke of. Another, and one directly related to any analysis of JB’s Biblical/God animadversions is the emergence of the prophetic (personal) encounter with God, the transformation of these encounters into Scripture, and the recorded experience of the epiphany of the Christ that reveals reality existing within the divine mystery “through the truth of language.”

          One key here to an understanding of the metaleptic (divine/human) relationship, Voegelin tells us, is the phenomenon found in the sacrality of the language in which the truth of the transcendent becomes “articulate.” The experience of the event and the expression (word) of the event are integral parts of the revelatory experience that illuminates the divine presence.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            No, I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I’m much more fond of the Earth God of Genesis 2 than I am of the Meme God who shows up in First John.

            The Earth God… well, here, let me repeat myself:

            Now, if you go back to the Hebrew Bible, you encounter a very interesting and decidedly *NON*-Cartesian God. You have a God with whom one can argue, wheedle, bargain, and with whom consensus can be reached. You have a God that changes his mind. You have a God that says “man, do I ever regret doing *THAT*!” You have, in one very strange sense, a peer. How I wish I heard the voice of a God like that.

            These Cartesian, distant, sky gods strike me as little more than a particularly insightful description of a rorshach blot. A description of the interior life of the describer, rather than having anything to do with anything of a spiritual nature at all.

            I stand by that. The Kraut’s God strikes me as an externalization of his Moral Intuitions and little more… just as the gods that I admire most and/or are most drawn to are an externalization of my own.

            And, like for you, the mystical is probably the only thing that can even come close to providing a counter-example that will falsify the theory.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Maribou suggested to me that it looks like I spectacularly missed the point of your essay and, seriously, I did not intend to… so I’ll try to come at it theologically.

    Assuming a God, I have to assume that any Moral Insights that I have are given/allowed me by His agency… and, at the same time, that my ancestors and elders also have similar connections to Him and can help me distinguish between my own irrational exuberance and true Moral Intuitions given me by Him… and, this is the tricky part, that other cultures have similar (we all trace our ancestry back to Him, after all… we are all brethren).

    As such, there is a spectacular tension between our duty to correct the irrational exuberances of others and our responsibility to not twist their God-given Moral Intuitions.

    So starting with that framework, I’d have to say that blasphemy would consist of irrational exuberance twisting God-given Moral Intuition rather than God-given Moral Intuition correcting irrational exuberance. This, of course, allows for inadvertent blasphemy… and is very different from run of the mill “sin” (Saul/Paul talked about “missing the mark” which, let’s face it, is something that just happens… compared to the act (inadvertent though it may be) of twisting the Insight God gave others).

    War, I suppose, would be the worst of this because it will, without a doubt, kill people (and arrest any further development of their Moral Intuitions), twist survivors with innumerable injuries (physical, mental, spiritual), and turn normal men with Moral Intuitions of their own into killers (mental, spiritual injuries galore)… and it’s done this more or less every single time and every single time people have warned that war will kill innocent people, twist survivors, and make young men into killers.

    Which, if you ask me, really puts Rushdie’s little comic novel into perspective.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      Yeah, I have to wonder how we could have free will and these hyperactive brains and not really have to be forgiven for the occasional blasphemous thought or utterance. It seems inescapable.Report

      • Avatar Rufus says:

        In contrast, I think most people see utterances as blasphemy, but overlook actions, which strike me as much harder to make up for. I mean, it seems easier to be forgiven for saying something terrible about a church than it would if you actually burned down a church. And, in modern war, it seems pretty much impossible not to either burn a church or a believer.

        To get back to the older conversation I had in mind here, since we all know that war involves killing, there really could be a moral argument for replacing war with assassination.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          One of the most recent acts of blasphemy I can recall is when PZ Myers desecrated some Host (that had, apparently, been sanctified).

          He posted pictures. The comments for that day were fascinating.

          The upside of Earth/Sky gods was that your utterances couldn’t do any damage to them… any more than my saying something about a guy on the other side of the world does damage to him.

          When it comes to Idea Gods (starting to not like that term… “Meme Gods”?), words are pretty much the only thing that *CAN* do damage. You want to shatter an idol? God is not there. You want to burn a book? God is not there. You want to knock over a building? It’s just a building.

          A Meme God, however, can be damaged through words… and one gets so used to such that when one confronts PZ Myers’ act of desecration, it feels like something from another era.Report

          • Avatar Rufus says:

            Maybe just Logos? God as incarnated doctrine? There’s got to be a good term here and, if we find it, we can write an academic book and get tenure.

            I see what you mean about Meyers desecrating the Host. Again, I’m not the best judge on these things, but my own thoughts would be summed up as “meh”. It’s certainly not a nice thing to do, but I would imagine that Catholics would compare that to, you know, crucifying the incarnated word and sort of shrug it off.

            Certainly, they weren’t happy with Andres Serrano for “Piss Christ”, but I don’t know that anyone felt it could not be allowed. Of course, the other thing about blasphemy of expression is that it’s open to more interpretation. There were a few Catholics who saw Serrano’s picture as a cry of outrage over what they believe society has done to Christ. Not many, of course, but I can sort of see where they’re going with that.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    She also points me to this book here:

    I see it’s available used from 7 bucks…Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    PZ Myers, however, is small time.

    If we look at the biggest acts of straightforward blasphemy from the last, oh, 25 years, what do we have?

    Off the top of my head:
    Mohammed cartoons.
    Rushdie’s _Satanic Verses_.
    The Last Temptation of Christ (the movie, not the book).

    And, of course, the Taliban shelling the statues of the Buddha.

    Any other high notes?Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      I think people protested the movie ‘Dogma’ too. There were some works of art- Piss Christ and one image of Mary with images of vulvas around her- that have caused controversy.

      Most of the examples here suggest that blasphemy of expression depends on someone else interpreting that expression as blasphemy. Certainly the problem with the “Last Temptation of Christ” is that the film essentially says that Jesus was a human being and he was tempted by Satan, but ultimately rejected that temptation, was crucified, and triumphed over death. Which is also what the Scriptures say. I might take off a few points for showing Jesus the carpenter making crucifixes before his revelation; but I’d add points for having David Bowie play Pontius Pilate. That’s just me.

      I do understand why people were upset that the film actually shows the sort of life Christ was tempted with, but I saw Scorsese’s point being that Jesus rejected that and stayed on the cross, and that none of us could have done that. Certainly, if you asked me, would I rather win the lottery or be run over by a truck- although the truck would be better for humanity in the long run… well, I’d say that nobody would be honoring me 2,000 years later!

      So, I think it’s possible that Scorsese’s intentions were deeply religious, regardless of the interpretations. To go out on a limb, I have to say that I found ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ to be much more profoundly serious about the Christian faith than ‘The Passion of the Christ’, which seemed to me to be, at its core, very trivial and shallow, and to try to cover that up with violence. At the end of Mel Gibson’s film, I didn’t have any sense that the audience was supposed to accept the message of Christ (which was largely absent from the film) as much as think that He could really take a beating. It was really a very crude and bullying movie that reminded me of the comment on the League recently about artists depicting violence as a substitute for suffering.

      But, again, that’s just one interpretation!Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Hey, I’m a fan of Last Temptation (indeed, I read the book before seeing the movie because I wanted to understand what the deal really was) and was shocked to find such things as Judas being a member of the Sicarii (seriously, this was my first encounter with this theory). I went on a Kazantzakis tear after that (second favorite: The Greek Passion) and was actually disappointed by the movie (though not by David Bowie… best speech ever… “maybe you Jews should go up and count the skulls on Golgotha. You might learn something. (sigh) Probably not.”)

        I think that list drifted back into “assumed blasphemy” rather than “seriously, this is blasphemous”… and that would likely make The Satanic Verses a superficially similar book that wrestled with some serious problems that Mohammed left in his wake that, to an outsider, would look like political (even cynical) maneuvering… and the blasphemy, of course, was that the book came out and said “oh yeah, it was political (even cynical) maneuvering.”

        It’s odd. I don’t see Serrano or Ofili as blasphemous, per se. If you look at just the work of art, you don’t see much worth getting into a twist over… until you read the “Title” of the work and realize that the artist is poking his thumb in your eye. It’s the title of the work that tells you “HEY EVERYBODY I’M BEING TRANSGRESSIVE” and *THAT* is the blasphemy.Report

        • Avatar Jim says:

          “was shocked to find such things as Judas being a member of the Sicarii (seriously, this was my first encounter with this theory). ”

          Dude, what part of “Iscariot” do you not understand?Report

    • Avatar Jim says:

      No one I cna remember aaw the destruction of the Bamian statues as blaspheny, least of all Buddhists. The term has no meaning in a non-theistic worldview, one, and secondly, since Buddhism says that forms and egoes and statues are transitory, it hardly makes much difference how a statue ceases to be a statue – explosives or weathering or the corrosive effects of birdshit.

      As for PZ Meyers – well, the consecrated host is the body of Christ, very sacred in a really central way, but hardly as bad as driving spikes through his wrists, which He basically orchestrated. So PZ is going to have to try a lot harder or else give up on taking himself so seriously. I guess he’ll keep trying, since there’s almost no chance he will ever stop taking himself very, very seriously indeed. Or maybe his gesture was aimed at believers rather than at God. If they fail to take it the same way Jesus does/did, then they’re falling short anyway. So PZ’s doing them a favor actually.

      As for the Piss Christ, if the artist had simply called it Incarnation, he would have been dead on the money in accord with Church doctrine – God born out of the filth of that is human nature.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I saw it as blasphemy, in the same way that I see book burning and censorship as blasphemous.

        But, again, I’m an atheist with fairly straightforward meme-gods. Not like those people in the next valley who have meme-gods with personalities and afterlives and whathaveyou.Report