Thursday, June 27, 2019

Birds that go straight

Corvids: a family of birds comprising the crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers.

"As the crow flies" means in a straight line.

The chess piece that moves in a straight line -- called a chariot or castle in most languages -- is known in English as a rook.

When Noah released birds from the ark, the dove returned -- flew in a circle -- but the raven did not.

When, instead of making a detour to the nearest crosswalk, one opts to traverse the shortest distance between two points, one is said to be guilty of jaywalking.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

John 3 with paragraphs and quotation marks

Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus

[1] There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: [2] The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him."

[3] Jesus answered and said unto him, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

[4] Nicodemus saith unto him, "How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?"

[5] Jesus answered, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [6] That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [7] Marvel not that I said unto thee, 'Ye must be born again.' [8] The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

[9] Nicodemus answered and said unto him, "How can these things be?"

[10] Jesus answered and said unto him, "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? [11] Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. [12] If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?"

*

The author's commentary

[13] And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

[14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: [15] That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. [16] For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. [17] For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

[18] He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

[19] And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. [20] For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. [21] But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

*

John the Baptist endorses Jesus

[22] After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judæa; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. [23] And John also was baptizing in Ænon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. [24] For John was not yet cast into prison.

[25] Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying. [26] And they came unto John, and said unto him, "Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him."

[27] John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. [28] Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. [29] He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease."

*

The author's commentary

[31] He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. [32] And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. [33] He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true. [34] For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. [35] The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. [36] He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus ends with John 3:12.

They may have gone a little overboard with the "words of Christ in red" thing.
The people who make those red-letter Bibles generally assume that John 3:10-21 is a single long quotation of what Jesus said to Nicodemus. The New Revised Standard Version places its quotation marks in accordance with that interpretation, too, but mentions in a footnote that "some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 15." I hold that even those commentators haven't been stingy enough with the red ink, and that the quotation concludes with v. 12. Here are my reasons for thinking so.

Verse 13 reads "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." This clearly states that the Son of Man (Jesus) has already ascended to heaven and is in heaven now. This was true at the time that the Gospel was written, but it was very obviously not true at the time of the conversation with Nicodemus -- when Jesus was, well, having a conversation with Nicodemus. You know, on earth.

"And no man hath ascended up to heaven" (v. 13) -- a blanket statement that ignores such obvious counterexamples as Enoch and Elijah -- reminds us of the similarly categorical statement in John 1:18, "No man hath seen God at any time," which ignores the obvious counterexample of Moses. John 1:18 is clearly the author writing in his own voice, not quoting Christ, so it makes sense that the same would be true of John 3:13.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (v. 16) sounds as if God had made a great sacrifice by "giving" his Son. This makes the most sense in a post-crucifixion context, when readers would understand that God so loved the world that he had allowed his beloved Son to be tortured to death.

If vv. 10-21 is a single long speech to Nicodemus, it is strange that nothing is said of Nicodemus's reaction, or how the conversation ended. The narrative just abruptly stops, and we jump to the next episode in Jesus' life. It makes much more sense if vv. 9-12 are the end of the conversation.
[9] Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 
[10] Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? [11] Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. [12] If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
This certainly sounds like a refusal to teach this "unbeliever" any more, not like a prelude to further holding-forth about Moses lifting up the serpent and God so loving the world.

The content of vv. 13-21 is not clearly related to the preceding conversation about being born again; the most reasonable assumption is that it is a bit of commentary by the author (the Beloved Disciple) speaking in his own voice.

The only potential problem that I can think of for this interpretation is v. 14: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." This "lifting up" of the Son of man is most naturally interpreted as a reference to the crucifixion -- but the author can't very well be saying "Jesus must be crucified" after the crucifixion and resurrection have already taken place. The choice of words does probably allude to the crucifixion, but the primary meaning must be something else. He must be saying something like: We must "lift up" the Son of man -- i.e., spread the word about him, preach the gospel -- so that others can believe in him and have eternal life.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Pictures by Kat Valentine

My sister Kat Valentine, who is a talented artist but has always been rather secretive about her work, has finally decided to post some of her pictures in a publicly accessible gallery. Here are two of my favorite pieces.

Moses in the Court of Pharaoh

An Unfinished Life

Saturday, June 15, 2019

An odd case of the Madeleine Effect

Proust, as everyone knows, dipped a madeleine in tea and put it in a mouth, and a vivid childhood memory unexpectedly "revealed itself" -- a phenomenon he dubbed la mémoire involontaire. Sometimes a stimulus triggers a very specific memory, which then invades our consciousness in all its immediacy, will we, nill we.

One would assume that each such experience is a one-off. One would assume that if Proust had taken up the habit of eating tea-soaked madeleines every day, he would not have experienced daily clockwork revelations of le temps perdu. One would assume that only a relatively uncommon stimulus would have the power to call to mind a specific previous instance of the same.

"One would assume," I say -- would, were it not for direct experience to the contrary.

*


A little over five years ago, I had a strange dream in which I saw on TV the face of a large beast (I thought it was a whale) with multiple eyes, a row on the left and a row on the right, and with catfish-like feelers around its mouth. Less than 24 hours after the dream, I did in fact see such a face on TV, while watching the Keanu Reeves movie 47 Ronin at the home of some of my wife's relatives. This experience, an apparent example of dream-precognition, is documented in my post "A beast with many eyes." After the movie I went out for a walk around their neighborhood.

The relatives at whose home I saw the movie live fairly close to our own house, but we don't visit them that often. However, I pass through that general area several times a month, and every time I get within a half-mile or so of their home -- the area in which I had walked after seeing 47 Ronin -- it triggers an memory of impressive (if perhaps not quite Proustian) vividness. I remember walking along the road, passing a rather handsome stray Formosan mountain dog, seeing a white sedan drive past me and then turn left. I remember a long row of Roman-style banners which had been put out to advertise for an election (and which have long since been taken down), and how their fluttering in the dark struck me as somehow uncanny. And I remember what I was thinking at the time -- mostly about the many-eyed beast, of course, and the dream which had anticipated it.

*

What would cause this sort of recurring Madeleine Effect? My guess is that it has to do with the fact that, while the stimulus is one I encounter often, it is never accompanied by any other memorable events which might compete with the original. When I visit those relatives, actually being in the house where I saw the movie does not trigger any vivid memories -- probably because all kinds of different things have happened in that house, of which watching 47 Ronin is just one. The house is not haunted by a single dominating memory. On the roads near their house, though, nothing ever happens. I just pass through. I've only been walking there that one time, which was memorable because of the uncanny experience I had just had, and which imparted its uncanniness to the otherwise unremarkable scenery. The first time I passed through after that, I experienced an unusually vivid memory -- which was itself a memorable experience, and thus reinforced the memory of the original walk. Aside from my walk, and my vivid memories of that walk, nothing at all memorable has ever happened to me in that area, so no real new memories are formed to swamp out the original one.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Seraphim


The 21st chapter of Numbers records this episode:
[6] And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 
[7] Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. 
[8] And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. 
[9] And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
In the King James Version, the phrase "fiery serpent" translates the Hebrew word saraph (plural seraphim), while the unmodified word "serpent" translates nahash -- this latter word being the usual Hebrew word for "serpent," as used, for example, in the Garden of Eden story. The two words are pretty clearly being used interchangeably here, as when "the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, . . . And Moses made a serpent." Going from this passage alone, we would assume that a saraph is simply a snake, or perhaps a particular kind of snake. Etymologically, saraph means "burning one," which is where the translation "fiery" comes from. Most commentators see this as a reference to the burning sensation caused by the snake's venom, which seems reasonable enough to me; the fire-breathing dragon of Western folklore may have originated as a similar symbolic representation of a snake's "fiery" bite.

(Incidentally, the emphasis on brass as the material of Moses' serpent is perhaps a bit of wordplay, since the Hebrew word for copper, brass, or bronze is nehosheth -- or, elsewhere in the Bible, nehushah or nahush -- calling to mind the word nahash, "serpent," and apparently deriving from the same primitive root, meaning "to practice divination." In 2 Kings 18:4, we are told that the serpent of Moses was called by the name Nehushtan, which many translations gloss as "thing of bronze," though "old serpent" has also been proposed.)

The next time the seraphim turn up in the Bible is in Deuteronomy 8:15, where it is said that the Lord "brought thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought." Again the usage is consistent with a saraph being a kind of venomous snake.

*

Isaiah is the only other book of the Bible to mention seraphim, and it is Isaiah 6, where the Hebrew word is left untranslated, that is responsible for the popular image of a seraph as a kind of angel. Certainly Isaiah seems to be describing something very different from a poisonous snake.
[1] In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. [2] Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. [3] And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. [. . .] [6] Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: [7] And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
These seraphim have hands, feet, and six wings; they are able to speak and use tongs; and one is scarcely able to imagine them biting anyone. In other words, nothing in the description suggests they have anything in common with a poisonous snake.

Based on the passages we have looked at thus far, the most natural conclusion is that the word saraph simply has two different meanings, that the epithet "burning ones" is applied to two classes of beings -- snakes with fiery venom, and angels blazing with glory -- which have nothing else in common. However, references to seraphim elsewhere in Isaiah do suggest a possible connection between the serpents of the Torah and the winged creatures of Isaiah 6.
out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent (Isaiah 14:29) 
the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent (Isaiah 30:6)
Both verses refer to a "flying saraph" -- but in a context that clearly connects seraphim with dangerous serpents and vipers, not angels. Obviously, the idea of literal flying serpents in the Negev is a bit hard to swallow, though some young-earth creationists do cite the seraphim as evidence for the survival of (apparently venomous) pterodactyls into historic times. More likely, "flying" is a figurative reference to the snake's great speed. John Pratt makes a pretty good case (qv) for the Israeli saw-scale viper as the original "flying saraph," citing its fiery color, the burning sensation caused by its venom, its lightning-fast strike, and its ability to leap off the ground for a "flying" attack.

Even if we're not talking about actual winged dragons here, a snake known as a "flying saraph" might naturally have been portrayed in art as winged, which later generations might have misinterpreted as a straightforward representation of the saraph's anatomy. At any rate, the idea of the saraph as a "flying" snake -- regardless of how metaphorical that designation may or may not have been -- makes a connection between the reptilian and angelic seraphim more likely. Just as the cherubim of the Bible appear to have been basically ox-like creatures rather than humanoid "angels," the seraphim of Isaiah may have been -- for all their wings and hands and so on -- basically celestial serpents.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Lévi's influence on Waite's Magician card

Here is part of A. E. Waite's description of his Magician card in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot.
A youthful figure in the robe of a magician, having the countenance of divine Apollo, with smile of confidence and shining eyes. Above his head is the mysterious sign of the Holy Spirit, the sign of life, like an endless cord, forming the figure 8 in a horizontal position. [. . .] In the Magician's right hand is a wand raised towards heaven, while the left hand is pointing to the earth. [. . .] This card signifies the divine motive in man, reflecting God, the will in the liberation of its union with that which is above. It is also the unity of individual being on all planes, and in a very high sense it is thought, in the fixation thereof.
And here is Éliphas Lévi's description of the same card in Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie -- as translated by none other than A. E. Waite.
א Being, mind, man, or God; the comprehensible object; unity mother of numbers, the first substance.
All these ideas are expressed hieroglyphically by the figure of the JUGGLER. His body and arms constitute the letter ALEPH; round his head there is a nimbus in the form of ∞, emblem of life and the universal spirit; in front of him are swords, cups and pantacles; he uplifts the miraculous rod towards heaven. He has a youthful figure and curly hair, like Apollo or Mercury; the smile of confidence is on his lips and the look of intelligence in his eyes.
The more of Lévi's work I read, the more I find him to have been the ultimate source of what I had previously thought to be Waite's own innovations.

10,000 days

Today I read the following paragraph in John Opsopaus's commentary on the World card in  his Guide to the Pythagorean Tarot.
Ecstatic dancing, which follows no choreography, allows the Dancer to pass from mortal time into transcendental time, but the dance of the World is not the chaotic gyrations of Dionysos . . . or the frenzy of the Maenads, but a rhythm evolving spontaneously in time. The steps follow each other in a regular pattern, but where the dance, or the Dancer, will go, we cannot say. The sun will rise tomorrow and the next day will dawn, but we cannot say what sort of world it will rise upon in ten thousand days (p. 262).
About two weeks prior to this, Bruce Charlton had left this comment on one of my posts.
I had a minor synchronicity today... striking but separated by a few days. In a dinner table discussion a participant mentioned that he was about to be 10,000 days old - I had never heard anyone mention this unit of time before (it amounts to 27 and a bit years). Today - reading Howl's Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) - there was a plot point about the character becoming 10,000 days old.
This, then, is an even-more-minor synchronicity, separated by two weeks but still striking. ("Ten thousand days" is quite a rare expression, since time periods of that length are normally reckoned in years.)

As an ancillary coincidence, the post to which Bruce's comment was appended was about Robert Frost's poem that begins "Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice" and also mentioned "a gypsy fortune-teller, sitting at a table with a crystal ball and some cards spread out in front of her." The Opsopaus passage also syncs with John 3:8, discussed in another recent post: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The nightmare toad


I happened to read the following in a treatise on witchcraft by Éliphas Lévi, describing "a bewitchment made use of by country people":
Yet another and more abominable practice. A fat toad is selected; it is baptized; the name and surname of the person to be bewitched is given it; it is made to swallow a Consecrated Host over which the formulae of execration have been pronounced. The animal is then wrapped in magnetized objects, bound with the hairs of the victim, upon which the operator has previously spat, and is buried at the threshold of the bewitched person's door, or at some point where he is obliged to pass daily. The elementary spirit of the toad will become a nightmare and vampire, haunting the dreams of the victim, unless indeed he should know how to drive it back on the operator.
This got my attention because I myself have had the experience of a buried toad haunting my dreams.

In my early teens I had a particularly vivid and memorable nightmare: I went out into the front yard of my home (this was when I was living in what is now part of Hell Hollow Wilderness Area in Ohio) and became aware that a toad, a malevolent one, was thinking about me, so intensely that it was insufferable. Following the radiating malevolence to its source, I arrived at a somewhat swampy corner of the yard, by the edge of the woods (a place we kids called "Africa" because after heavy rains a large puddle in the shape of that continent would form there). Perceiving that the toad was underground, I got a shovel and dug down until I found a heavy wooden box. Opening the lid, I found that there was indeed a large toad inside, deep brown in color and with red eyes. It was sitting completely motionless in the box but was very obviously alive and conscious and positively oozing spite, and I was aware that it was laughing at me. I tried to kill it with the shovel but found that it had no effect. Finally I decided that the only thing to do was to bury it again.

*

This toad was recently recalled to my memory by the little dog in Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Conjurer (discussed here and here), which somehow carries some of the same feeling. Although Bosch's dog is not at all malevolent, and even seems likable, it is like the dream-toad in the way sits hiding in the shadows and yet becomes the focus of our attention because of the unbearably intense consciousness it exudes. An animal that manages to become that conscious comes across as "demonic" in a broad sense even if it is not actually evil.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Jesus and Nicodemus on being born again (notes on John 3:1-10)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus Coming to Christ (1927)
I have been putting off tackling this chapter, thinking it too deep for me -- but if I made it through the first chapter, there's no excuse for shrinking from the third.

This post was originally going to cover all of John 3 -- but, in keeping with my decision to write shorter posts and post them more frequently, I've trimmed it down, first to the first 21 verses (the Nicodemus episode) and finally to the first 10 (the bit about being born again). As always, the text under consideration is in purple. Everything else is my own commentary.

*
[1] There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
Nicodemus is a very obviously Greek name (Νικόδημος, "victory of the people" or perhaps "victory over the people"), so finding it here as the name of a "ruler of the Jews" in Jerusalem is a bit surprising -- more surprising than finding such Greek names as Andrew and Philip in "Galilee of the Gentiles." My first thought was to see this seemingly inappropriate name as a red flag, a possible warning that the character is fictional, but in fact I had underestimated how Hellenized even Jerusalem had become by the first century. Some translations of Josephus's Jewish War (2.17.10) mention a Jew called Nicodemus in first-century Jerusalem, though it appears that the original Greek actually has Nicomedes. At any rate, both names are equally Greek. There is also a Nicodemus ben Gorion, a first-century Jew in Jerusalem, mentioned in the Talmud, though tradition has it that Nicodemus was a punning nickname, not his original name. It is doubtful whether either or both of these Nicodemuses could be identical to Jesus' nocturnal visitor, but they do establish the plausibility of that name appearing at that time and place.

"A ruler of the Jews" probably means that Nicodemus was a member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, which enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy under Roman rule.

*
[2] The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God:
Nicodemus's coming to Jesus by night suggests a certain lack of courage, an unwillingness to show his interest openly. This is consistent with what we read later of Nicodemus, in John 7. When the chief priests and Pharisees say, in Nicodemus's presence, "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" Nicodemus does not exactly stand up and say, "I know that he is a teacher come from God" -- though even the rather weak defense he does offer ("Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?") is enough to elicit accusations that he is "of Galilee."

On the other hand, this interview under cover of night -- like the Matthean prayer prayed in a closet -- is evidence of sincerity. Unlike the stereotypical Pharisee, who comes to Jesus with some clever and insincere question, hoping to catch him in his words and make a fool of him publicly, Nicodemus can have no other motive than to learn more of the doctrine of a teacher whom he honestly believes to be "from God." There is no element of sophistry or grandstanding. And given the fear implied by the need to come secretly, at night, it took a certain degree of courage to come to Jesus at all. Nicodemus's use of the plural -- "we know that thou art a teacher come from God" -- suggests that at least some of his Pharisee colleagues also believed but were afraid to show that belief even in private.

Moral judgments of Nicodemus have varied. The Catholics made him a saint. Calvin, on the other hand, disparaged as "Nicodemites" those Protestants who were afraid to stand up and be counted as such.

I have illustrated this post with Nicodemus Coming to Christ, painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner -- the son of a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad. Art critics often mention that the figure of Nicodemus must have resonated with someone of Tanner's background, since many slaves also had to "come to Jesus by night," learning in secrecy the forbidden art of reading the Bible. It is ironic that Nicodemus himself -- a ruler, not a slave -- found himself under a similar necessity. Now the zeitgeist has apparently come full circle, and it is once again the elite who find it most dangerous to show an interest in Christianity.

Since Nicodemus's meeting with Jesus was conducted secretly, at night, how is it that it has entered the historical record? Were the disciples present at the interview? It seems unlikely. Nor can I imagine that Jesus himself would have betrayed a confidence by publishing what Nicodemus had been so careful to conceal. We can only conclude that Nicodemus himself told the story to someone, perhaps shortly before his death. Despite his caginess before the chief priests, Nicodemus did in the end make a public show of the high regard in which he held Jesus, providing an extraordinary 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes for his burial (John 19:39).

*
for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
We have just read in the previous chapter that "when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did" (John 2:23), and apparently Nicodemus was one such. No account of the miracles themselves is given, so we cannot be sure what exactly Jesus had been doing or how out-of-the-ordinary it was; based on what the Gospels say elsewhere, we might assume paranormal healings of some sort (or perhaps exorcisms, though no exorcisms are described in the Fourth Gospel).

Our generation no longer believes in miracles. This is not to say that we discount the possibility of the paranormal (though of course many of us do that as well), but that we no longer consider the paranormal to be evidence of divine favor -- which is what the word miracle implies. We no longer reason, as Nicodemus did, that "no man can do these miracles . . . except God be with him." Most of can't even muster much interest in the numerous documented "miracles" of, say, Sathya Sai Baba. We assume without bothering to investigate that they represent some combination of fraud and non-denominational "psychic powers," but we feel none of the urgency that should accompany a conviction that God (or Mahadeva) must be with such a man.

Whose reaction to "miracles" is better, ours or Nicodemus's? In a way, the question is irrelevant. We simply can't react to miracles the way Nicodemus and his contemporaries did, so there's no point asking whether or not we should. Our faith must be grounded in other things.

*
[3] Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
[4] Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? 
[5] Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [6] That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [7] Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
Now we come to the nub of things. Everything depends on what interpretation is given to this being "born again" -- and Jesus declines to give the interpretation himself. When Nicodemus asks for clarification ("You obviously can't mean 'born again' literally, so what do you mean by it?"), Jesus elaborates the metaphor but does not explain it. Many simple explanations have been proposed: It means being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost; it means death and resurrection (or reincarnation); it means the personal transformation whereby one becomes a believer. Jesus could easily have given some such explanation -- Nicodemus clearly wanted one -- but he declined to do so. We are meant to puzzle it out for ourselves as best we can. The Jesus of the Synoptics will sometimes give his disciples the "key" to a parable, explaining it in a straightforward X-means-Y manner, but the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel never explains anything and rarely, if ever, gives a straight answer to a question. This should get our attention an make us ask what he's about. Did he want to communicate his message or not?

The only reasonable conclusion, I think, is that communicating a particular set of doctrines was not Jesus' purpose at all. If it was, he went about it in a very inefficient manner, saying things that were bound to be misunderstood and speaking much less clearly than he could have if he had had a mind to. His teachings were not meant to communicate, but to facilitate direct revelation. As we spend time thinking deeply about the things he said, God can speak to us -- or perhaps at times we can simply apprehend the truth directly, without the mediation even of God. The Word is not a finished product to be consumed, but an agent of creation -- or, as the Synoptic parables have it, a seed. "The sower soweth the word" (Mark 4:14). "The sages . . . must speak occasionally," says Éliphas Lévi. "Yes, they must speak -- not, however, to disclose, but lead others to discover. Noli ire, fac venire."

*

So numerous interpretation of Jesus' words to Nicodemus exist, and this diversity is perhaps legitimate and even intended, the seed growing differently in different soils. I have already mentioned some of the common interpretations of "born again." As for "born of water and of the spirit," this had been taken to mean baptism and confirmation, or physical birth ("water" referring to the amniotic fluid) and spiritual rebirth. Valentin Tomberg has his own idiosyncratic interpretation based on the fact that the surface of a body of water is reflective -- hence passive and reactive, as opposed to the active spirit.

I think this passage should probably be understood in light of John 1, to which it clearly alludes. The key passages are vv. 12-13 and 33.

[12] But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: [13] Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 
. . . 
[33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
John 1:13 contrasts being born "of God" with being born "of the will of the flesh," which is mirrored by "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (3:6); and "born of water and of the Spirit" (3:5) parallels John's reference to being baptized "with water" and "with the Holy Ghost" (1:33). Ghost and Spirit are, of course, variant translations of the same Greek word (as is wind in 3:8). As I mentioned in my notes on John 1, the Greek expression translated "born of" is properly used to indicate a person's mother, not father. Water, the Spirit, and the flesh (and, in 1:13, even God himself) are being presented as metaphorical mothers.

Nicodemus rightly dismisses the idea of a man's entering the womb a second time in order to be born again. Even if such a thing were biologically possible, what could possibly be the point of such an exercise? Why should a fully developed organism, which is already viable outside the womb, go back in only to come right back out again? Even granting that the expression is obviously metaphorical, the metaphor can't be that, or it could only be a metaphor for something completely pointless. No, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is this: You've emerged from your mother's uterus, but in a larger sense you're still in a womb. There's a larger womb from which you have not yet emerged, and until you do so you will never see the kingdom of God.


Assuming that "born of water" refers to the amniotic fluid of the physical womb, to be "born of" that water is to come out of it. What, then, does that imply about being "born of" the Spirit -- or of God? When Epimenides of Knossos wrote, in the voice of Minos addressing Zeus, "for in you we live and move and have our being," was he speaking as one who had not yet been born of God? Well, yes, I think so. Epimenides, who lived some 600 years before Christ, was a shaman-type character of uncertain extraction (when he died, it was discovered that his whole body was covered with very un-Greek tattoos), and although Paul would later quote this line and apply it to the God of the Christians, it expresses what is essentially a pre-Christian idea.

"That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." When a baby is born, what had been a part of the mother's body becomes a physically independent body. In an analogous way, those who are born again become independent spirits. They are not fully independent, of course, any more than a newborn baby is fully independent of its mother, but they have taken an irreversible step in that direction. The goal is no longer to be, in Meister Eckhart's words, "a clear glass through which God can shine," but rather to become an independent "friend of God."

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[8] The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
As I have already mentioned, the same Greek word (πνεῦμα), can mean "spirit," "breath," or "wind" -- a range of meanings shared by its Hebrew counterpart רוּחַ -- and only the context can determine which is intended in a given passage. In this case, the use of the verb blow makes wind the only possible translation.

"That which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (or wind), and I think what Jesus is saying here is that one who has been born of the spirit is just that: an independent spirit, a free agent, an uncaused cause. The spirit does as it chooses ("bloweth where it listeth"), but "whence it cometh, and whither it goeth" are unknowable even to that spirit's own conscious mind.


Bruce Charlton expresses this idea well in a recent post:
That which does the free thinking is the Self. That which is conscious of the content of thinking is Consciousness, and Consciousness is different from the Self. Consciousness 'observes' thinking that is 'coming-out-of' the Self. [. . .] We cannot know what is going-on 'inside' the Self. If we could understand its 'inner workings', it would not be the Self, and it would not be free. Analysis must stop at the Self.
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[9] Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? [10] Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? 
"How can these things be?" has long been my own response to the whole idea of agency and free will, so I understand where Nicodemus is coming from, but Jesus' response is the correct one. Rather than try to explain how these things can be, he says, in effect, "Come on, are you seriously trying to tell me you don't know?" In the end, everyone does know what agency is, no matter how good they may be at constructing arguments proving that they don't.

Five cornerstones

I recently received another batch of emails from a correspondent who keeps encountering repetitions of the number 5 (55, 555, etc.). This ma...