Those Other Messiahs…

September 2, 2009

I told a friend recently about Sabbatei Zevi, the apostate messiah who I’ve written about before (in one of my favorite posts). An excerpt:

Understandably, when Sabbetai got to Istanbul, the sultan was pissed. The sultan had him arrested for rebellion and imprisoned in Gallipoli. His followers held faithfully to their hope that this all part of the plan. While he was in prison, Armstrong reports, Sabbetai began signing his letters “I am the Lord your God, Sabbetai Zevi.” No ambiguous “Son of Man” claims here.

But, fatefully, on being brought back to Istanbul for trial, Sabbetai was back in a depressive phase. One has to wonder how history would be different if he had been in a manic, prophetic phase. Forced to choose between death (which might have made him a martyr or a savior) and conversion to Islam, Sabbetai put on the turban and took a second wife as his harem. His followers were crushed.

But while most of them fell away and became disillusioned, a core of the truly dedicated (or delusional) remained:

‘The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Sabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people.’

I find Sabbatei Zevi particularly fascinating because he’s one of only a handful of claimants to the title of messiah who still have followers today (the most notable example being Jesus of Nazareth).

This led me to wonder just how many people have claimed to be the messiah. And, like all great questions that have been asked by humanity, this one has a Wikipedia page to answer it.

This is going to be fun reading!

Advertisements

Things Must Be Bad…

January 11, 2009

…if the Wall Street Journal is publishing editorials saying that Israel has committed war crimes in its bombing and invasion of Gaza.


US “Free Press” Toes US Party Line

January 6, 2009

Al-Jazeera has a damning article up on the US media’s coverage of the conflict in Gaza:

The images of two women on the front page of an edition of The Washington Post last week illustrates how mainstream US media has been reporting Israel’s war on Gaza.
On the left was a Palestinian mother who had lost five children. On the right was a nearly equally sized picture of an Israeli woman who was distressed by the fighting, according to the caption.
As the Palestinian woman cradled the dead body of one child, another infant son, his face blackened and disfigured with bruises, cried beside her.
The Israeli woman did not appear to be wounded in any way but also wept.

This English-language Al-Jazeera article is aimed at readers like me. It worked…


Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?


The Apostate Messiah

December 27, 2006

shabbatai1.jpg

Here’s a (relatively) little known historical episode, as related by Karen Armstrong in A History of God. In the 17th century a Jew named Sabbetai Zevi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. Sabbetai (one of many spellings) was embraced by both rabbis and common Jews, throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Sabbetai Zevi grew up in the Jewish community in Smyrna, in what is today Turkey. Today he would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive, as he had “periods of deep despair, when he used to withdraw from his family and live in seclusion” which were followed by “an elation that bordered on ecstasy.” During his manic days Sabbetai would “deliberately and spectacularly break the Law of Moses: he would publicly eat forbidden foods, utter the sacred Name of God and claim that he had been inspired to do so by a special revelation.”

Read the rest of this entry »


Letter to a Christian Nation

November 29, 2006

ahmadinejad.jpg

That’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter, not Sam Harris’s.

So what would posess the President of Iran to write a letter to the American people? Maybe he knows enough about the American press to realize that he’ll get lots of media coverage. And maybe he’s deluded enough to think that coverage will be positive. Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to read some of his letter and offer a little critique.

“Both our nations are God-fearing, truth loving and justice seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection. Both greatly value and readily embrace the promotion of human ideals such as compassion, empathy, respect for the rights of human beings, securing justice and equity, and defending the innocent and the weak against oppressors and bullies.”

I’m not sure the U.S. is quite as God-fearing these days as Mr. Mahmoud thinks. A poll in 1999 showed that only 63% of Americans believe God is “very important” in their lives. And, as the actions of Ahmadinejad’s regime to lessen the rights of women in Iran have shown (undoing years of work by Iranian liberals), profession of ideals relating to human rights is no substitute for really defending them.

“You know well that the US administration has persistently provided blind and blanket support to the Zionist regime, has emboldened it to continue its crimes, and has prevented the UN Security Council from condemning it.”

True, though I would have worded it a bit different (one can and should criticize Israel, but calling it “the Zionist regime” just turns off your American readers…). Our veto on the UN Security Council has been used more than any other coutntry’s, almost exclusively in protecting Israel from (sometimes legitimate) criticism.

“Who can deny such broken promises and grave injustices towards humanity by the US administration?”

Err.. American conservatives? Oh wait, that’s rhetorical.

“The legitimacy, power and influence of a government do not emanate from its arsenals of tanks, fighter aircrafts, missiles or nuclear weapons. Legitimacy and influence reside in sound logic, quest for justice and compassion and empathy for all humanity. The global position of the United States is in all probability weakened because the administration has continued to resort to force, to conceal the truth, and to mislead the American people about its policies and practices.”

He’s right about legitimacy- it stems from justice and compassion. But power and influence stem from military, economic, and cultural power, all of which we’ve been happy to employ in our commonly realpolitik international relations. The illusion of American exceptionalism may convince many American citizens that their country’s actions are for the good of the world just as Muslim fanatics in Iran are convinced that forcing their religion on others is really what’s best for them.

“We all condemn terrorism, because its victims are the innocent.”

But Mr. Ahmadinejad, you do a decidely poor job of condemning terrorism.

“What have the Zionists done for the American people that the US administration considers itself obliged to blindly support these infamous aggressors? Is it not because they have imposed themselves on a substantial portion of the banking, financial, cultural and media sectors?”

Uh oh.. Here comes the whole worldwide Jewish conspiracy again. Powerful Jewish lobby? Sure. Overzealous, scary premillenial dispensationalists? Definitely. But worldwide Jewish conspiracy? Definitely not. (My friend Mr. Steinman told me so.)

And to the Democrats:

“Now that you control an important branch of the US Government, you will also be held to account by the people and by history.”

Thanks buddy. Glad you’re watching out for us.

“It is possible to lead the world towards the aspired perfection by adhering to unity, monotheism, morality and spirituality and drawing upon the teachings of the Divine Prophets. Then, the American people, who are God-fearing and followers of Divine religions, will overcome every difficulty.”

I’m not sure if the religious zealots in both our countries would very well in agreeing on which Prophets to follow. Unity and monotheism sound great, but when people can’t decide what to be unified about (look at denominationalism in Christianity and Islam) or which monotheistic God (and which book He wrote) to follow, unity is often another way of saying “my way is the only perfect way.”

Aspiring to perfection gives me mixed feelings. Yes, we should always try to improve, but the illusion that real perfection is possible is dangerous. It reminds me of a quote from the introduction to Francois Bizot’s The Gate, a first-hand account of his captivity in the killing fields of Cambodia. Bizot writes,

“I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this Utopia engenders has justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.”

I think there is a middle ground, a way to envision a world that is better- more just, more peaceful, more free, more prosperous, more equal- without knowing that it is possible within one’s lifetime. But we should always strive to move closer to that ideal, even if the ideal may never be realized. Don’t let visions of revolutionary change- religious or not- stand in the way of gradual steps up.

Or, as Paul Farmer says, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”


Bad Theology

November 14, 2006

Like rocket fuels and cantaloupes, not all theologies are equal.

Discussing whether a particular theology is an accurate depiction of reality is one way to judge between them. That path leads one into deep questions of epistemology, authority, canonicity, exegesis, and all that jazz.

But theologies can also be judged by their impact on those who believe them, as well as those around them. I think all people, believers or not, could agree that some theologies have lousy results.

For example, I would prefer living next to a moderate Muslim as opposed to a community of Islamic fundamentalists. Others bloggers are less hopeful, doubting that religions such as Islam are capable of moderation. So religions that desire physical takeover of the world and theocracies go unequivocally into the ‘bad’ heap.

Another example is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as represented by Warren Jeffs and described in Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Believing that one can kill for one’s faith or force young women into multiple marriages with you also lands you in the bad camp.

One of the reasons Joseph Smith’s sect has had so many fascinating little splinter groups was Smith’s early emphasis on direct revelation from God. While Smith later tried to suppress others’ prophetic leanings (leading to many early divisions) the trend was set. A person who truly believes that God has spoken directly to them with explicit commands is not likely to compromise. So wandering prophets also mostly get tossed into the bad pile.

Last Saturday I drove to Memphis for a rocket launch and was entertained on the drive back by a rather frightening radio program. In it, a breathy, tearful-sounding preacher spent most of his time railing against liberals like me. But he also took special interest in the state of Israel. (Mike Cope recently linked to an article on evangelical support of Israel.)

The preacher said anyone would be a fool to read the Holy Book and not realize the urgency of prophecies regarding Israel. Surely the world is in its last, final days, the true End days. It will all come to a glorious finale within his lifetime. And we should continue to support Israel, he said, because God will work through them to bring about Judgment Day on sinners (like me). For as we bless Israel so God will bless us.

And the clincher: “And we know that the reason America has always been more than just friends with Israel is because of the faithful Christians who have a voice in our government. We can never allow anyone to wrestle that support away, or to use the power God has given us to criticize Israel instead of supporting her. Every iota of freedom America has, every iota of wealth we have, is all because of our support for His people in Israel.” And this guy has a radio program.

Over the last year I’ve come to dislike the idea of a “chosen people” more and more. The history of Judaism (and to a lesser, often more spiritualized extent, Christianity) is chock full of the “chosen people” concept. God is on the side of the Jews. The Jews are His people. Christians are God’s chosen people. Through most of my upbringing, I had accepted this concept from the inside, without realizing how ugly it looks from the outside.

Believing that God would endorse your genocide of entire populations to make room for you, his holy people, is so blatantly racist that now I am constantly amazed to hear my peers justify it. If your theology leaves any room for doubt that genocide is always wrong, maybe we should reopen discussion on whose moral values are ‘absolute.’

The likes of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are delusional if they think this sort of religious passion is going to disappear overnight. Also, Harris’s vindictive style isn’t likely to win many converts. But there’s a grain of truth in it as well, that there are limits to tolerance.

We do not tolerate one who will kill for his faith. And while we may legally tolerate diverse religious views, it may also be wise to offer little respect (on the level of personal interaction) to those whose views are dangerous to society—like the Fundamentalist Mormons, or militaristic premillenial evangelical—in hopes that the social awkwardness of holding certain views will decrease their popularity.

All people who attempt to inform their worldviews at least partially with reason, be they secularists or religious moderates and liberals, should try their hardest to make theocracy, jihadism, ethnocentrism, and other bad theologies go away.