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By TheophileEscargot (Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:20:13 AM EST) Reading, Listening, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "Lipstick Jihad". Listening. Web.

What I'm Reading
Finished Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni. Iranian-American woman moves back to Iran, works as a journalist. Some interesting insights into the lives of the young middle and upper class in Tehran.

Less successful in other ways. The political insights seem somewhat dubious. Moaveni struggles to reconcile the lukewarm and apathetic response to Iranian reformers and politics with her belief that Iranians really want a secular government. She concludes that they want it but think it's inevitable, so are just waiting for the older generation to die off. Seems more plausible to me that while they don't like the current regime, they doubt a secular regime would be an improvement. Also inertia and conservatism are always powerful forces in human affairs.

There's also an awful lot of dreary finding-oneself psychobabble, culminating in exactly the same insight as every single other book of ex-pat-lit: that while not belonging entirely to either country, one can find a kind of home in the synthesis and diaspora. Fine, but she could have saved herself a lot of trouble by just reading Salman Rushdie or Monica Ali or anyone else and getting the same take-home message.

Overall, take with a pinch of salt, but does counter some myths about modern Iran.

What I'm Listening To
Part-way through TTC lecture course Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary. 32 lectures. Only covers Judaism and Christianity though: no Islam, which makes it a bit like reading a biography of Groucho and Harpo Marx: would have thought he could have put a one-lecture summary in or something.

Found the first section, on the relationship between Judaeo-Christianity and Neoplatonism, absolutely fascinating. I think one thing that's fooled me before is that the Neoplatonists like Plotinus aren't that much like old Plato himself. It seemed to me that the cave analogy was more aimed at political analogy than ontological analogy: "you may laugh at us philosophers but it's only because we've seen so much further than you troglodytes, so put us in charge anyway." And in his discussion of the afterlife, his spokesman Socrates seems very vague and essentially says only something-like-this-might-happen, rather than giving a specific prescription.

Cary draws a strong contrast between scriptural Christianity and Neoplatonism. The Neoplatonists were strongly dualistic. They believed that the human body is of the element earth and is thus bound to Earth; whereas the human spirit is made of air or fire or quintessence, and thus belongs to the Heavens. Hence the human spirit comes from somewhere else, is briefly imprisoned on Earth, then returns to the heavens. The human spirit is alien to the body, and alien to the Earth. Both the earth and the body are somehow unclean, and inferior to the heavens and the spirit.

In both the old and new testaments though, this dualism doesn't really exist. The human soul is barely or never mentioned. Cary points out that when the stone is rolled back from Jesus' tomb, it's not that the body is there and the spirit has gone to Heaven: the whole point is that the body isn't there either. The world isn't an unclean place that we are alien to and should escape from: the world was created by God precisely to be a home for us. Cary interprets Revelation to mean that at the great ending we don't all fly off to heaven: the wonderful thing is that heaven comes right down to Earth and resurrects everyone right here.

It's interesting, and it does seem to me that modern fundamentalists tend to lean more towards the Neoplatonist side than the Scriptural side. They share the same emphasis on the spirit, with the body and the world seen as somewhat unclean. I notice from reading evangelical blogs that they tend to be peculiarly disparaging of environmentalism, frequently interpreting a concern for the environment as a form of idolatry. That seems very Neoplatonist in its disapproval of the world, and doesn't really fit the Genesis notion that humans have a stewardship of it.

Also, if we go back to the proper Plato, I'm reminded of the discussion of love in the Symposium. The format of that dialogue is that various flawed characters (windbag, traitor, backstabber) give flawed discussions of (homosexual) love, and Plato's mouthpiece Socrates comes in at the end to set them straight with a discussion of (heterosexual, then Platonic) love as a union of opposites. It seems to me that fundamentalists too share this fascination with heterosexuality and homosexuality, whereas it's rarely mentioned in the bible. Their particular abhorrence for homosexuality might come from Neoplatonist notions that only opposites should unite, rather than a particular emphasis on this sin in Scripture.

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Herland | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)
Homosexuality in the Bible. by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #1 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:53:09 AM EST
If you really wanted to split hairs, the term "homosexuality" never appears anywhere in the Bible. That said, fundamentalists, sadly, don't need extra Biblical resources to fuel their homophobia. Homosexuality is not mentioned very often in the Bible but, where it does appear, the Old Testament is pretty blunt in its negative assessment:

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."

Strip away any Neoplatonic flap and you've still got some fairly blatant statements to work around. Many people have found ways to dismiss such verses, but the verses are there.

But by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 09:11:38 AM EST
They seem to have a particular opposition to homosexuality: seeming to regard it as worse than other sexual sins like adultery and onanism, and worthy of particular attention.

The bible rarely mentions it: they rarely shut up about it.

It seems to me that the particular emphasis on this sin is more Neoplatonic than scriptural.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
I think it has less to do with Plato 2.0 by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #3 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 10:00:27 AM EST
And more to do with the fact that it can be easily used as a rally cry for political reasons.

The Bible says considerably more about helping the poor and the moral corruptions of wealth than it does about sexuality of any sort, but bring those up and you're gonna let all manner of crap befall your ministry.

But you whip out the specter of "THE GAY AGENDA," an imaginary boogey man, and you've got yourselves a whipping boy that all your fundamentalist followers can rally around without fear of internal schism.

Like arguments about philosophy or debates in the social sciences, the energy and viciousness of the debate is in indirect proportion to the stakes. You can get a far right group into a lather about the issue because it isn't going to impact them the way a proposal to, say, redistribute wealth to help the needy would.

Besides, there seems to be a contradiction in the Neo-Pleo idea of the soul body split and most fundamentalists' conception of homosexuality. They don't believe homosexuality "resides" in the body.  They think that homosexuality is a choice and that gays are simply stubborn sinners or confused individuals. They don't think gayness is a physical matter, but an intellectual one. Hence the idea that gayness can be rejected and the gay person can be "set straight." Seems like N-Plo's would assume that it was yet another example of the corruption of the body, a vessel particularly vulnerable to such corruptions.

[ Parent ]
Possibly by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #4 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 10:16:37 AM EST
But even so:
They don't think gayness is a physical matter, but an intellectual one. Hence the idea that gayness can be rejected and the gay person can be "set straight."
That seems like a pretty Neoplatonic idea to me, depending on a strict dualism between body and mind. The body gets satisfaction from one thing, but the mind (or soul) needs to overrule that lower impulse.

If you believe that mind, body and soul are all one entity, then it's harder to believe in converting people from gay to straight. Presumably the temptations are always going to be there.

In fact, the whole binary distinction between gay and straight as types of being seems to be a bit Neoplatonic: as if they're Platonic Forms rather than behaviours someone engages in.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
So the theory is . . . by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #5 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 10:40:34 AM EST
That despite the Bible actually containing a directive to kill gay people, we're going to hold that the real source of far right fundamentalist homophobia is the esoteric spirit/body split of Neoplatonism? This despite the fact that large swaths of the far right believe in bodily resurrection (not just for the Big JC but for everybody), which suggests that bodies are not inherently corrupt, and that many Biblical injunctions towards bodily purification are regularly ignored by this same crowd.

It seems like we're going out of our way here to explain this. A sort of reverse Occam's Razor.

Then again, I'm just speaking from my experience, I wouldn't know a Neo-Platonists from Adam.

[ Parent ]
The Old Testament by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #6 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 11:09:57 AM EST
Is full of laws that they otherwise don't obey: the dietary laws, polygamy, slavery, stoning to death and so on.

Paul mentions homosexuality in the epistles, but IIRC there too there are instructions which are not obeyed literally.

I don't see much fulmination against cotton/polyester blend clothing or hats in church.

So, I think there has to be a reason for them choosing to take homosexuality as particularly bad, and particularly worth preaching against. The exceptionality of homosexuality doesn't seem to me to be justified by scripture itself: hence it needs another explanation.

Earlier you gave your own explanation in terms of "gay agenda" as useful bogeyman. But I'm not really convinced: there are plenty of other political or racial bogeymen available.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
You don't read my posts by georgeha (4.00 / 2) #7 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 11:39:53 AM EST
I often rail about Huckabee not decrying mixed thread clothing, though not here.

[ Parent ]
The question isn't what rules they follow. by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #8 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 12:10:30 PM EST
Technically they aren't following the rules regarding homosexuality as we haven't had many churches calling out for blood.

There are numerous political boogey-men - which brings up another issue: is homosexuality really that uniquely important an issue? - including abortion, sexual education, the teaching of evolution, and the separation of church and state issues (school prayer, taking "under God" out of the pledge, what's the reason for the season crap and so on).

Again, all these fit the same profile: it is easy to hold an extreme view on the issue without being asked to make any genuine sacrifice and none of them are particularly deeply scriptural in basis (with maybe the exception of the evolution thing).

The pure/impure duality seems to be a long running trope of Western culture that predates the 3rd century. I would believe a theory that claimed that such archetypal thought could be found in both thought systems. But to claim that No-Plo thought is feeding modern far right evangelicals (a group of people that don't tend to have much truck with academic theology - many of the super-churches these days don't even take readings from the scripture) seems far fetched to me.

Still, guess this is one of those things you can't really prove either way.

[ Parent ]
Hmmm by TheophileEscargot (4.00 / 1) #13 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:35:43 PM EST
I think the lack of sacrifice thing might be a imporatant factor too.

I don't think that the pure/impure concept that pre-dates Neoplatonism is really the same as the spirit/mind/heavens versus body/earth dualism that came later. In the earlier concept something earthly like a place can either be holy or unclean or something in-between. And there's change between the states: the unclean can be purified, the sacred can be defiled. Whereas with the Neoplatonic dualism the two things are innately separated.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Other political and racial boogeymen in the US by lm (4.00 / 2) #9 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 12:12:29 PM EST
... for the most part have more power than the gay community. This is starting to change, slowly, in some quarters.

I wonder if, perhaps, the degree of emphasis that the religious right puts on homosexuality as a particularly grievous sin isn't well correlated to the degree of acceptance of homosexuality as being normal. The same is probably true of abortion. I would not be surprised if there is a trend that the more prevalent acceptance (at least at the public level) these sins become, the greater the vigor with which they're preached against.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
[ Parent ]
Maybe by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #12 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:29:12 PM EST
But again much that's probhibited by Mosaic law is widely accepted today. I suppose homosexuality is something prohibited by the Mosaic law that has changed its status of acceptability more recently, which might make it more of a visible target.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
neo-Platonism was condemned by the early church by lm (4.00 / 1) #10 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 12:28:51 PM EST
At least in its strict form. From Ignatius of Antioch on, orthodox forms of Christianity have held that by God becoming incarnate, not only all of human nature, but the entire universe was transformed. Even prior to Ignatius, you've got a conception of the new heaven and the new earth in the New Testament as places that are both material and spiritual. This way of thinking comes to its most refined exposition in Thomas Aquinas in the west and Maximos the Confessor in the east.

That said, many orthodox Christians do tend towards a more moderated Neoplatonism except rather than referring to all matter as pulling the spirit down, they refer to `fallen nature' or `corrupted nature.' But where Neoplatonism really comes out in full force is in the heavily Calvinist forms of Christianity. I'm not certain you could successfully argue that Calvin himself was an Neoplatonist, but many modern sects that were influenced by his thinking do seem to think that matter is of no account.

But to be fair, the dualism that does exist in some forms of modern Christianity is almost entirely at the popular level rather than at the dogmatic level. (The notable exception being some of the Christian sects that are moving to various forms of theological liberalism.)

I think the real reason homosexuality gets a special place as a very heinous sin is really more dependent on Aristotle than Plato. Sexual sins are given a special prominence in the New Testament. As sex in the marital relationship is held out as a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church, any perversion of that relationship is already worthy of special note. Many early Church documents suggest severe liturgical discipline for sexual immorality. If you add to this a bit of natural law theory, you're left with a teleologically twisted form of a very notable sort of sin.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
Dates by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #11 Wed Jan 30, 2008 at 08:25:39 PM EST
Neoplatonism was basically started by Plotinus who lived from 205 to 270 AD. Another major figure was Proclus from 412 to 485. Cary cites Denys/Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine as introducing neo-Platonism into Christianity.

Ignatius of Antioch lived roundabout 35 to 110 AD. So I think he and the other really early Christians were a bit too early to reject Neoplatonism.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Perhaps they were too early to reject it by name by lm (4.00 / 1) #14 Thu Jan 31, 2008 at 02:00:08 AM EST
But some of the early camps were teaching something very similar to Neoplatonism far earlier than Plotinus. For example, Marcion was teaching that the physical world was a mistake, created by a sort of bumbling deity and that the real `spiritual' God sent the Christ principle to become incarnate to reveal the fullness of spirit  by teaching us who are trapped in physical bodies to transcend physicality. Various gnostic groups also taught something along these lines.

And some people, like me, think there is less difference between Platonism and Neoplatonism than other people claim. Sure, there are differences. I won't deny that. I just don't think they're all that substantial.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
[ Parent ]
Herland | 14 comments (14 topical, 0 hidden)