Demanding sacrifices to the baalim

We have not progressed out of the ancient days of superstition and blood religions. We hold ourselves out as sophisticated people, but the populace calls for blood sacrifice.

In the days of the prophets of Israel, the people demanded modernity, and for them, being modern meant following the religious practices of the people around them, who worshipped several gods represented as carved idols, the baalim, or just as Baal encompassing them all. The religion of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob was portrayed as old, as out-of-date, eccentric in the modern world. This was a theme throughout Biblical times. The priests of Baal looked sophisticated in rich gowns, no doubt with high-flown language and mysterious words that sounded as if they had authority beyond the understanding of man. These things impress the weaker mind, which is all of us really.

The priests of Baal called for blood. They sacrificed children alive on burning altars. At that everyone should have turned with revulsion, but it was made to seem logical, or as a proof of how powerful the priests and their timber gods were. Once they had established the power of life and death, resisting them became very hazardous. The Kings of Israel, that is of the rebel northern kingdom, succumbed often to these foreign blood-thirsty religions, but it may have been because of the feelings of the people pushing them there. Other kings remained nominally attached the Law, but permitted baal-worship, and even patronised it.

The words of the prophets of Israel weep for the children.

We are not so different in our day. We expect our rulers, and their political advisers, to be held to different rules, which we can never bear ourselves, and to sacrifice their own children in the name of the fashionable practices invented from our own heads. We think we are the modern ones, but behave no differently from the ancients.

To the general crowd, the rulers of the people are just more wooden gods, to be tolerated in the hope of another harvest, but like the baalim, they can in reality do no magic. The when the harvest fails, we want to cast them onto the flames of their own altars. When the paint chips away and the common people see that these are not gods in Whitehall but fallible men like us, the fury knows no end – they must be cast out, burned, insulted before their families, besieged in their houses, condemned as the worst deceivers, until they in turn can be burnt as a sacrifice to the unseen forces.

The rulers fallen from worship were just personae, a concept embodied in a wooden statue, are not are not seen for what they are: flesh and blood men and women, trying their best, sometimes failing, sometimes misunderstood, with real families and children. They are your neighbour and mine. That will not convince the mob, convinced that they have been deceived, unable to accept that faces on the screen have families and children they love unconditionally above all else, as any father and mother love their children, who act accordingly. That is not enough for the fury of the crowd – plaster gods should not be any more then the face on the screen and should not have wives or children: to enter into public life they must sacrifice their own children. The priests of the baalim are waiting.

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Mill, Calvin and Hobbes

John Calvin, and Calvinism, have drawn many interpretations, few recognisable to the Great Reformer himself. Our vision is shaped by the sight of dour ministers of the Kirk pronouncing thundering condemnations from the pulpit, and those schismatic free churches which shake the dust of their feet when they leave divide from the Church of Scotland and its over such matters as scandalously allowing music in worship. The word “Calvinist” is associated with joylessness and Christianity stripped to bare essentials.

However in theological terms Calvinism is just one of the branches of the Reformation, sitting beside Lutheranism. The Thirty-Nine Articles which define the doctrine of the Church of England, with its robed priests and mitred bishops, is Calvinist.

John Stuart Mill in On Liberty wrote of his idea of it:

It is so, on the Calvinistic theory. According to that, the one great offence of man is self-will. All the good of which humanity is capable is comprised in obedience. You have no choice; thus you must do, and no otherwise: “whatever is not a duty, is a sin.” Human nature being radically corrupt, there is no redemption for any one until human nature is killed within him. To one holding this theory of life, crushing out any of the human faculties, capacities, and susceptibilities, is no evil: man needs no capacity, but that of surrendering himself to the will of God: and if he uses any of his faculties for any other purpose but to do that supposed will more effectually, he is better without them. This is the theory of Calvinism; and it is held, in a mitigated form, by many who do not consider themselves Calvinists; the mitigation consisting in giving a less ascetic interpretation to the alleged will of God; asserting it to be his will that mankind should gratify some of their inclinations; of course not in the manner they themselves prefer, but in the way of obedience, that is, in a way prescribed to them by authority; and, therefore, by the necessary condition of the case, the same for all.

….

It may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either; nor would a Pericles, if we had one in these days, be without anything good which belonged to John Knox.

He got it wrong – he hits the mark on how many ministers treated morals, but that is not Calvinism, properly defined. The idea Mill identifies is “whatever is not duty is sin”, and duty is in the eyes of the minister. There is no such doctrine in the Scriptures. I have not read in intense detail Calvin’s own Institutes of the Christian Religion, but though it frequently mentions duty, and it certainly emphasises the total depravity of mankind (with which Thomas Hobbes would not dissent), I can see no suggestion that he believed that a Christian must follow a script – he contradicts it.

The problem, the prescriptive idea, comes from after Calvin- from a distortion brought by fanatics so convinced of the reform that they wanted to take it further, like riding to the destination and then riding fast beyond it and away from it.

Hobbes lived through the Puritan revolution. He observed:

these took upon them not only a Divine right, but also a Divine inspiration. And having been connived at, and countenanced sometimes in their frequent preaching, they introduced many strange and many pernicious doctrines, out-doing the Reformation, as they pretended, both of Luther and Calvin; receding from the former divinity or church philosophy (for religion is another thing), as much as Luther and Calvin had receded from the pope; and distracted their auditors into a great number of sects, as Brownists, Anabaptists, Independents, Fifth-monarchy-men, Quakers, and divers others, all commonly called by the name of fanatics

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Propitiating the gods, like the Romans

We have come a long way since the Enlightenment, but much of it is backwards. The philosophers of that age, both the wise and worthy and the dunce and disgraceful, believed that an age of reason would enwrap humanity, but they forgot that humanity is necessarily human and of the same clay that first looked with new eyes over his lone, primaeval Eden.

We accept rulers but we want to hear the feet of God walking in the garden, or since that is to terrifying, any little gods to make it all go away. We expect our rulers to entreat these plaster gods by whatever ceremonies and incantations are required; certain forms of words to be spoken on any topic, or requiring us to bang pans at 8 pm on a day so instituted. Who the new Numa Pompilius is, receiving these ceremonies at Egeria’s spring, I have not determined, but there is public expectation that these things must be done, all in proper form and order, failing which disaster will befall us all. Reason and measure have no place here.

To a classically educated Prime Minister, as we have today, it must all seem familiar.

Hobbes wrote:

“The Designes Of The Authors Of The Religion Of The Heathen And therefore the first Founders, and Legislators of Common-wealths amongst the Gentiles, whose ends were only to keep the people in obedience, and peace, have in all places taken care;

“First, to imprint in their minds a beliefe, that those precepts which they gave concerning Religion, might not be thought to proceed from their own device, but from the dictates of some God, or other Spirit; or else that they themselves were of a higher nature than mere mortalls, that their Lawes might the more easily be received: So Numa Pompilius pretended to receive the Ceremonies he instituted amongst the Romans, from the Nymph Egeria: and the first King and founder of the Kingdome of Peru, pretended himselfe and his wife to be the children of the Sunne: and Mahomet, to set up his new Religion, pretended to have conferences with the Holy Ghost, in forme of a Dove.

“Secondly, they have had a care, to make it believed, that the same things were displeasing to the Gods, which were forbidden by the Lawes.

“Thirdly, to prescribe Ceremonies, Supplications, Sacrifices, and Festivalls, by which they were to believe, the anger of the Gods might be appeased; and that ill success in War, great contagions of Sicknesse, Earthquakes, and each mans private Misery, came from the Anger of the Gods; and their Anger from the Neglect of their Worship, or the forgetting, or mistaking some point of the Ceremonies required.

“And though amongst the antient Romans, men were not forbidden to deny, that which in the Poets is written of the paines, and pleasures after this life; which divers of great authority, and gravity in that state have in their Harangues openly derided; yet that beliefe was alwaies more cherished, than the contrary.

“And by these, and such other Institutions, they obtayned in order to their end, (which was the peace of the Commonwealth,) that the common people in their misfortunes, laying the fault on neglect, or errour in their Ceremonies, or on their own disobedience to the lawes, were the lesse apt to mutiny against their Governors. And being entertained with the pomp, and pastime of Festivalls, and publike Games, made in honour of the Gods, needed nothing else but bread, to keep them from discontent, murmuring, and commotion against the State.

“And therefore the Romans, that had conquered the greatest part of the then known World, made no scruple of tollerating any Religion whatsoever in the City of Rome it selfe; unlesse it had somthing in it, that could not consist with their Civill Government; nor do we read, that any Religion was there forbidden, but that of the Jewes; who (being the peculiar Kingdome of God) thought it unlawfull to acknowledge subjection to any mortall King or State whatsoever. And thus you see how the Religion of the Gentiles was a part of their Policy.”

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Enfolded in the divine

Do I have to go back to work in the morning? The Easter holiday might have passed by almost unnoticed in the general closing down of everything, one quiet day leading into the next, but Easter stands alone as the centrepoint of the Christian calendar.

We have had the services on-line, and Songs of Praise, and all is filled with the central Christian message, the Gospel coming to this point, of redemption by sacrifice and glorious resurrection giving continuance to the redemptive enterprise. You could avoid all this over Easter, looking only at chocolate eggs and films on the telly, but what a shame that would be.

There is such a difference between Easter and Christmas. For many, the only time Christian themes break into the consciousness is at Christmas, when a narrative is presented by tiny children with Jesus a helpless babe in a manger – and this presentation seems designed determinedly to keep him there. At Easter there is no keeping the baby in a cradle – he has grown, thriven, taught, healed, inspired and given his all for all. Keep him is his cradle? He cannot even be kept in his grave.

Work begins again in the morning, mostly working from home, but working. Those on-line services are still with me, full of joy and the message repeated through the familiar words spoken by familiar and unfamiliar preachers. Easter is not a moment that has passed. Easter is about a new beginning that continues forever, so after this message the rest of the year cannot be unchanged.

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Mr Internet’s Sunday Morning Service

We approach the second Sunday of the shutdown, and last week’s online sermon was a cracker.

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the computer screen.
In the beginning was the Word.

With insincere apologies to Eliot, but the web reaches more homes than any one vicar can ever dream to, if congregants tune in, and it can draw more of a virtual congregation to expand the reach of the original: it is polyphilogenitive. It goes against the grain of a Protestant church minister to seclude himself away and talk to a camera as their whole calling is to reach out to real people, but it may actually seem a liberation.

To speak to a camera must be daunting if you are not trained to it – how many times will your voice drain to a mumble when uncertain of the line or wearied with it, when a congregation present before you keeps your oratory present and alive.

However the congregation may be a distraction too. A minister proclaiming to the congregation may be the fount of wisdom and a sure guide to the surest words of life, but those faces staring out have a silent echo back – the facial reactions of the speaker are picked up and the preacher counter-reacts, which breaks the planned flow. It may sow doubt about the emphasis or the theme, or the planning of the sermon, and those words of life and wisdom carefully planned in every nuance and pitched at a precise tenor begin to waver and stumble to try to regain the audience. That usually happens to me, though untrained, when addressing a secular gathering.

Freed of the critical faces of the congregants, the minister may speak as he planned. He may soar into heights of oratory, may use all those analogies and Biblical references that came to him and speak as it sounded in his head when he wrote his sermon. The preacher truly inspired who speaks as the spirit drives him, is guided then by the spirit and not driven back into himself in the face of the dark look from the third pew back.

He can even stop and re-record if he gets it wrong.

From the view of the congregation, we miss the company of the Body of Christ, but we can hear cracking sermons, the way they were always meant to be, and if we miss a bit or misunderstand, we can rewind and hear it again. (Also, we will have none of those cringing “Now form small groups and discuss” moments.)

If we happen to light upon a dull reverend, which is not a problem in our parish, we can switch to another, and there is now no shortage. There are quiet vicars in city churches, or firebrand Free Presbyterians in Ulster, and the Archbishops can come into our living rooms in virtual person.

Last Sunday, I am told, more people listened to our vicar than in his usual congregation, and he often fills the church. Maybe after the lockdown has passed, this will be our way to hear the Sunday sermon, thanks to the Reverend Dr Internet.

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