“Turning the other cheek” is not a passive act

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:38-40

Walter Wink, noted theologian and activist, offers an alternative interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, the important points of which are:

  • In the time of Jesus, no “public act” could be performed with one’s left hand, as this was the hand reserved for “unclean acts” such as wiping one’s rear end.
  • Using a fist on someone was strictly reserved for fights between equals.
  • So, if someone were to “smite thee on the right cheek” it would have to be a back-handed blow, which was reserved for underlings.
  • If you turn your left cheek to someone who can’t use their left hand in public, then the only way they can hit you is with a right cross.
  • If a person hit you with a right cross, he was demonstrating that he saw you as an equal.

And so:

By turning the cheek, then, the inferior party is saying “I’m not inferior to you, I’m a human being. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I’m your equal, I’m a child of God, I won’t take it anymore.”

Walter Wink, Nonviolence for the violent

As for “resist not evil”, Wink explains that a better translation would be “don’t violently clash with” evil. He asserts that King James didn’t want any Bible verses to seem to advocate disobedience to the “powers that be” and thus we get the admonition not to resist.

But clearly Jesus did resist evil. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus is calling on others to join in this resistance by these acts of civil disobedience.

The point has been made; the powers that be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus — and Jesus was already depicted as addressing a crowd — you have a social revolution on your hands.

Walter Wink, Nonviolence for the violent

Everyone is enmeshed in their lives, and we don’t always have the economic or physical power to resist evil outright. But we can do it in subtle yet powerful ways. Imagine for example if you were a German mechanic during the 3rd Reich; maybe you could put small holes in the brake lines of military vehicles. Or if you were a poor but free man in the American south during slavery; you could turn your back as a slave escaped.

Small acts, added together, can have large consequences.

 Carl Bloch [Public domain]

On not being absurd

All this, if taken literally, is absurd. If it is taken symbolically, it is a profound expression, the ultimate Christian expression, of the relationship between God and man in the Christian experience. But to distinguish these two kinds of speech, the nonsymbolic and the symbolic, in such a point is so important that if we are not able to make understandable to our contemporaries that we speak symbolically when we use such language, they will rightly turn away from us, as people who still live in absurdities and superstitions.

Paul Tillich, The Nature of Religious Language

There is a real problem with promulgating Christian spirituality: most people take the easy approach to religion. I don’t mean this to sound harsh, because it is a natural human tendency to take the easiest approach to anything. If we didn’t, there would not be washing machines and chain saws.

There are at least two easy approaches to Christianity: simply accepting it as you were taught and simply rejecting it as absurd.

Accepting Christianity as you were taught means that you received your beliefs already digested, like a young bird receives food from its mother. It’s easy because you don’t have to think, contemplate, or concern yourself with the details. The problem with this approach is that it is unsustainable for most people. This is why we are losing the battle for “hearts and minds”.

Rejecting Christianity out-of-hand is also easy, because this is probably what you have been taught in government schools and via the prevailing attitudes in society. (For example, note how many comedians make fun of Christians, but never do so for, say, Muslims.) You’ve probably been taught that Christians are always the big meanies that come into a place and force their beliefs on the nice indigenous folks that were just living peaceful lives gathering berries. Although we all seem to agree in principle that you can’t reasonably condemn an entire group for the actions of a few, it doesn’t stop people from doing it where Christians are involved.

The uncomfortable truth is that, most probably, the Christianity you’ve been taught is absurd. It’s unsustainable, and losing Christianity because of this will be the death knell of civilization. While I disagree with some of what (now deceased former bishop) Spong has written, the title of one of his books says it all: Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

But the deeper meaning of Christianity is hard to “get” and thus people are reticent to put in the effort to understand it. All of the information is there, and has been for centuries. If you want to understand it, all you have to do is look (Matthew 7:7-8).

  Franz Stuck [Public domain]

Why facts have no bearing whatsoever on religious belief

Language is a cage which resists attempts to talk significantly about things outside the factual realm. Still, the thrust of this tendency ‘points to something.’

Charles L. Creegan

The following are some notes on the chapter Implications for Religion from the book Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality, and Philosophical Method by Charles L. Creegan. This chapter attempts an integration between the work of the two major philosophers (one a logician and one a theologian). I think he brings up some very helpful points.

In this post I will focus on his discussion of Wittgenstein’s view on religion.

The Tractatus conception of the ‘mystical’ is connected with Wittgenstein’s understanding of the self as transcendent. Only something outside the world can have a full view of it. The self marks the limit of the world. The world is mirrored in language. The self’s transcendence of language implies a transcendence of the world, and the possibility of new understanding not bounded by language.

p. 77

This coincides with the sayings and writings of pretty much all mystics throughout history. The cool thing about Wittgenstein’s addition to it is that he reaches this point via a strict logical analysis!

Wittgenstein … explains the function of religious language as akin to that of a simile… A simile is an explanation of one structure by means of another… In the case of religion … the object of the simile is not describable otherwise than by the simile. Nor is this a contingent fact which is subject to remedy by further scientific investigation; rather the ‘simile’ is in this case an attempt to use language to express something beyond the linguistically definable world. Insofar as ethics and religion are attempts to get beyond language … they will never be scientific.

pgs 77-78

Thus, facts have no bearing whatsoever on religious belief, or faith. This is the point of my previous post where I stated that “All religious language is by necessity metaphorical, and so what matters is the message, not the ‘facts.’ Only people without faith need facts.” It’s easy to misinterpret this statement as “science denying” — one needs to read it with context.

Image from the book Just the Facts Ma’am.

“Your truth”, “my truth” means “no truth”

If someone is making a sensible remark by saying, “That is true for me but not for you,” then the person must mean simply, “I believe it, but you do not.” Truth is not relative in the sense that something can be true for you but not for me.

“Truth”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s scary how many people now use the phrases “your truth” and “my truth” – especially when it comes out of the mouths of politicians. These are the very same people that sneer at so-called “science deniers” and yet, evidently, they don’t agree with the very core belief of science (that objective facts exists).

From what I can tell, this movement started with Schopenhauer‘s 1818/1844 book The World as Will and Idea (please don’t bother to read this book unless you’re tracing the history of dumb ideas). The very first sentence of this book is “The world is my idea.” Contrast this with the first sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: “The world is everything that is the case.”

But this really got rolling in the second half of the 20th century due to the quite reasonable work of Wittgenstein, Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard which was then adopted by a bunch of people who were not smart enough to understand their work. In fact, the place where you encounter this postmodernist radical relativism most is not in philosophy departments, but in the colleges of education. A bunch of people who were not really smart enough to understand subtle points instead starting teaching the equivalent of “anything is true if you say it often enough and loud enough.” Now we’ve had two generations of teachers who swallowed this notion and then regurgitated it back to their own students.

Postmodernism is the enemy of truth. Even if you are an atheist and believe in nothing but “hard science” then you believe that truth is not subjective. So, to be a scientism-ist and a postmodernist is self contradictory.

The most radical postmodernists do not distinguish acceptance as true from being true; they claim that the social negotiations among influential people “construct” the truth. The truth, they argue, is not something lying outside of human collective decisions; it is not, in particular, a “reflection” of an objective reality. Or, to put it another way, to the extent that there is an objective reality it is nothing more nor less than what we say it is. We human beings are, then, the ultimate arbiters of what is true. Consensus is truth. The “subjective” and the “objective” are rolled into one inseparable compound.

“Truth”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Consensus is truth” — doesn’t this sound like a Orwellian newspeak?

The single best counter-example I know for postmodernist radical relativism is the Boxer Rebellion, where the “Boxers” (so called because they were students of a charismatic martial arts master) were “convinced they were invulnerable to foreign weapons.” Putting aside who was right politically in this conflict, it quickly became apparent that — although thousands of people believed that Western weapons could not hurt them, they were very, very wrong. The summary execution of all those suspected of being Boxers ensued. You can not talk your way around a bullet.

By that same token, it’s important to remember that having faith in God or Jesus does not instill you with supernatural powers either. The only power you have is power over your own beliefs, attitudes and actions.

We would all like to live in a world where people have magic powers — just look at the popularity of Harry Potter and the Marvel superhero movies. But, wishing don’t make a thing so. And neither does consensus or political posturing.

 Public domain