adieu

Adieu: A Poem

“You don’t even give me time to miss you,” she said

While I had one foot out the door and both eyes

On the girl from across the room who was

Paying rapt attention to my half-sulking, half-dead

Words hanging at my sides

 

“She always like that?” the girl whispered

I moved closer to her, just to feel her breathe on my pale

skin. So seductive those mouthfuls of poems

Being sent my way, like words wrapped in blankets,

Warm and cozy—and I felt at home

 

“Are you always this kind?” I asked her.

“See, the last girl never cared about it.

I spent most of my days jotting notes written

On the backs of letters being sent to ‘Elsewhere’

A place where I knew she’d never miss them”

 

“Don’t stop now. I hear your love in writing.

The way your eyes light up against a dark-night hurt

as you hold my hand and tell me all the places you’ve

never been but wish to go. And time leaves us alone.”

I whisper, “Promise me you’ll be here when I return.”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

autumn

And I Smile Too

Is this “I love you”? For—

 

Your lips taste like hallelujah

The kind that is muttered during godless hours

when children lie dreaming

beneath starry showers

And your nightgown is the see-through-you

 

Your eyes cast the divine

The kind that is found in cathedrals and stained windows

icons casting glances

wax candles that burn low

Painting sunsets on my soul’s tide

 

Your words are the lovely simple

The kind that slip through holes in your body

falling on my tongue like

mists of sweet, sweet honey

Watching your cheeks forecast dimples

 

And I smile too.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

religious-freedom-under-the-first-amendment

Religious Freedom Under the First Amendment: Three Supreme Court Cases and the Ambiguous Term “Religion”

Throughout the years, and in various Supreme Court cases, the distinction between “religious/sectarian” and “nonreligious/secular” has been rather ambiguous. In this essay, I will examine three separate Court cases in which the Court had to defend its verdict by employing what I deem “ambiguous” uses of the term “religion.” Moreover, I will argue that “religion” as a phenomenon is virtually impossible to define in any concrete, rigid manner. Given this reality, the Court’s decisions, when attempting to demarcate the line between that which is religious and nonreligious, will always remain blurry. Hence, it is my position that ambiguity will remain ever present in the their decisions so long as the Court continues to deal with an ambiguous phenomenon[1] known as “religion.”

Before examining the three cases, I will first begin by looking at the First Amendment and the surrounding historical context in which it was shaped, a context, as we shall later see, that set the trend for the Court’s various positions on “religion.”

The First Amendment was shaped in the 18th century during a time when several principles were deemed essentially conducive to a peaceful, well-governed society. The principles were: (1) liberty of conscience; (2) free exercise of religion; (3) religious pluralism; (4) religious equality; (5) separation of church and state; and (6) disestablishment. “While many of these terms carried multiple meanings in the later eighteenth century and several other terms were under discussion, these six principles were foundational for the American founders.”[2] The First Amendment—an amendment originally governing only Congress—was first applied to states and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause in the pioneering case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).[3] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[4] The Founding Fathers initially feared a particular religious institution so close to the State that it would use the State to persecute any dissenting voices.[5] However, in their attempts to articulate a form of government that allowed the flourishing of religion, the Fathers left one fatal void: they failed to define “religion.” What constitutes a religion? Witte writes, “Nowhere is the word ‘religion’ defined in the Constitution or Bill of Rights…”[6] In fact, if “original intent” is observed, it becomes relatively clear that by employing the term “religion” the Fathers meant “a plurality of Protestant Christian faiths.”[7] That is, they probably did not mean to defend the religious freedom rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Catholics. Nonetheless, a few scattered remarks from this time period do exist which help us understand what “religion” was thought to be. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[R]eligion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.”[8] Here “religion” was thought to be (a) a private affair and (b) involving a person and some deity. On June 26, 1788, during the Virginia convention on the Constitution, the authors wrote revealingly: “Religion, or the duty which we owe our creator, and the manner of discharging it…”[9] Here it can be seen that “religion” was thought to be something between a person and his or her deity/Creator. What is alarming in these two remarks is the lack of precise terminology. As we shall see, the modern day Court—from the 1940s onwards—has continued to wrestle with its definition of “religion,” having inherited this ambiguous legacy. I now turn my attention to three modern-day cases in which the demarcation between religious and nonreligious has continued, as in the past, along ambiguous lines.

In Frazee v Illinois (1989), the Court decided a case that involved a certain William Frazee who refused to accept a retail position that involved work on Sundays. He claimed that, as a Christian, it was unlawful for him to work on the Lord’s Day. Frazee later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied. Consequentially, the Department of Employment Security’s Board of Review justified its refusal to grant unemployment benefits to Frazee by stating: “When a refusal of work is based on religious convictions, the refusal must be based upon some tenets or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect, or denomination, and such a refusal based solely on an individual’s personal belief is personal and noncompelling and does not render the work unsuitable” [489 U.S. 829, 831] App. 18-19.[10] In a rather fortunate series of events, the Supreme Court picked up this case and overturned the earlier decisions made by the lower courts. Justice White, arguing for the majority opinion, wrote:

“While membership in a sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held beliefs, the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause is rejected. The sincerity or religious nature of appellant’s belief was not questioned by the courts below and was conceded by the State, which offered no justification for the burden that the denial of benefits placed on appellant’s right to exercise his religion.”[11]

Essentially, the Court said that while it may be true that Frazee was not a part of any church or sect—for all they knew, he might have stayed home on Sundays only to watch Oprah and eat Bon-Bons—nonetheless, it was not the State’s job to verify the sincerity of religious beliefs, or, for that matter, to act as an arbiter in religious affairs. Put simply: if a person stated they were Christian, it was beyond the State’s power to attempt to prove or disprove the sincerity of those beliefs. The State was not a religious organization, and so could not pass judgment on the sincerity of any deeply held—or, for that matter, deeply faked—religious beliefs.

In the above case we see, once again, a continuation of ambiguity when it comes to the subject of religion. Mr. Frazee was not a part of any church or religious organization. And yet the Court overturned an earlier denial of unemployment benefits on the basis that work on Sundays, for Frazee, was an unnecessary burden on his allegedly religious conscience. Justice White wrote, regarding the difficult process of demarcation between religious and secular, “Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held.” Could one create a religion out of thin air, claim a free exercise violation, and win? In the post-Frazee v Illinois world, it seems so. For here—as much as ever—the term “religion” is not clearly demarcated from the secular/nonreligious. If staying home and watching football on Sundays is, at some future point, considered to be a “religious act,” who would blame the Court for not knowing what to do? Nobody seems to know what religion/religious is to begin with. Next, I will look at yet another pesky issue: just how cozy could the secular State get with religious holiday displays?

Lynch v Donnelly (1984) was a case settled after the groundbreaking Lemon v Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon v Kurtzman the three-pronged “Lemon test,” a test used to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion, was first formulated.[12] In the case we are now considering—namely, Lynch v Donnelly—the city of Pawtucket, R. I. came under fire for erecting a Christmas display on private property owned by a nonprofit organization, property located directly in the center of the city’s shopping district. Amongst the Santa Claus house, Christmas tree and other such holiday objects, there was also placed a crèche, or nativity scene. This crèche was challenged for being an “establishment clause” violation: the State, funded by diverse taxpayers, was using its funds to “promote” a single religion, Christianity. The case ended up going to the Supreme Court, where the Court concluded, “Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause.”[13] What were the Court’s reasons for reaching this verdict?

The Court argued that the now-famous concept of a wall of separation between church and state was a “useful metaphor” but “not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists.” In addition to this, the Court argued that the Constitution did not, in fact, “require complete separation of church and state”; rather, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation…”[14] The Court also recognized how ubiquitous religion was. Religion was a part of the “American life.” Because it was the Christmas season, and because the crèche alone was not the singular focus of the Christmas display, the Court—echoing the “Lemon test”—ruled that “the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government.”

As can be seen, the Court argued that religion was already mixed into the American way of life, thus admitting that the line between religious and secular was to be found “in the mix” somewhere. In other words, there wasn’t much of a line to begin with. Nonetheless, the Court still attempted to make that line materialize. Somehow, because of the “national tradition” and our desire to “depict the origins of that Holiday,” Christmas had become a rather secular holiday, with displays serving “legitimate secular purposes.” While the Court was busy employing the terms “secular” and “religious” without defining them, they had also snuck in some Orwellian double-think by referring to Christmas as both a “religious” and, finally, a “secular” holiday. And so the ambiguity continues.

I now want to turn my eyes to my final case. In Employment Division v Smith (1990) the Court back peddled on the “accommodationist logic” it used in Lynch v Donnelly. In this case, the defendants were two members of the Native American Church fired from their place of employment for using peyote on religious grounds. Once fired, they applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that denying them unemployment benefits for using peyote on religious grounds violated their right to exercise religion; however, the state refused to pay out the benefits because possession of peyote was deemed a crime—so the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court focused, citing Sherbert v Verner, on whether the employees had a “constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment.”[15] Smith, one of the members who appealed to the Supreme Court, argued that he was doing nothing different than what we saw done in Frazee. That is, “[i]f Frazee could get unemployment compensation for refusing to work on Sunday, his day of rest but not worship, Smith argued, surely he could get compensation for being fired for engaging in the arduous and ancient religious ritual of peyote ingestion.”[16] The Court, however, was not in agreement with Smith. On the contrary, they argued that this case should be treated not as a case dealing with unemployment per se but rather as a case dealing with “free exercise” and compliance with “criminal laws.” In fact, the Court argued that Oregon State’s law regarding the illegal use of drugs (or which peyote was one) was “neutral” and “generally applicable”; hence, differing from the prior cases such as Frazee, the Court now argued that it was possible for the State to cast a burden upon a religious person so long as it was doing so by means of a generally applicable law that did not single out any particular person or religion.[17] Using the Court’s logic in Smith and applying it to Frazee one could argue that Frazee did not deserve unemployment compensation since he refused to work on Sundays—and “mandatory Sunday-work is required of everyone, being generally applicable to all, religious or irreligious.”[18] Such a statement, however, was not made in Frazee. Why?

Returning to the second case I looked at—that is, Lynch v Donnelly—allow me to remind you that in that case that which was secular and that which was religious was comingled. In Lynch the religious became the secular by means of “tradition.” Since what was initially religious had been around so long, it was no longer really religious; it was, in fact, perfectly secular. “Christmas is not really a religious holiday; it is mostly a secular holiday with ancient, religious roots. But most of us don’t focus on the religious element, so it’s basically secular,” went the argument.

But not so in Smith. Here a couple of men, who were unquestionably religious, were not allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. Like Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper—sipping on a toxin known as alcohol[19]—the men involved in the Smith case could not exercise their beliefs. Why? Because the state thought their use of peyote, even in what was deemed a purely religious ritual, to be illegal. The line between religious and secular was assumed throughout the Smith case; there was no question that the two men were participating in a religious act. However, the relationship the State had with their so-called “religious activities” was vastly different than its cozy relationship with the mostly Christian activities we saw in Frazee and Lynch. In these cases, whatever was found to be religious was either explained away as the mostly secular (Lynch) or deemed impossible to verify (Frazee)—in both cases the Court allowed the religious to exercise their religious beliefs, no matter how fake (Frazee) or how assimilated into the secular culture (Lynch). What we saw in Smith, however, was what appeared to be a rather concrete, underlying assumption that the Court understood what it meant for something to be “religious.” But even here the “religious” was never defined. And so, despite the dogmatic rhetoric, the Court has yet to define what it means for something to be a religious act or a religion.

In 1912, James H. Leuba published a seminal paper that included an oft-cited appendix listing more than fifty definitions of religion.[20] Today, more than ever, the religious is ubiquitous—we see it in law, in politics, in science classrooms, in our libraries, in our churches, etc. As then, so now, we don’t really know what religious really means—if anything at all. There are a multitude of definitions available to us. Some, like the Founding Fathers, may see religion as that which involves some deity/Creator. Others, like Buddhists, may argue that no such deity is required by religion. Still others may argue that no such thing as God exists. Some may think a church or synagogue plays an essential part in what it means for something to be deemed religious; others, like Frazee, argue that religious acts do not have to involve such structures. Some may argue that religion has so infiltrated our society, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the two (e.g., Lynch). Some may argue that religion is relatively straightforward, involving the use of chemical substances; practices that the State could, in theory, forbid (e.g., Smith). In all of these various cases, involving a plurality of definitions, the distinction between religious and nonreligious, sectarian and secular, remain forever indistinct to our eyes as we gaze into that abysmal sea of religious discourse “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). So long as the Supreme Court continues to deal with this most notoriously difficult of issues—that is, the ambiguous phenomenon we call religion—so long will we be haunted by paradoxical court cases and unclear decision-making processes.

 

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to John Witte, Jr.

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] It is entirely possible to argue that my use of the term “religion” in itself is already misleading; instead, it may be argued, that what I should have written should have been the plural “religions.” However, I use the term colloquially: it encompasses all and every “religion,” whether the various religions have anything in common or not. (Even here one detects a thorough-going ambiguity: what, in fact, do all religions have in common? Or do we just group various phenomena that appear to be ceremonial as being “religious”? What, then, is “religion”?)

[2] John Witte, Jr. and Joel A. Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 98-9.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 30-1.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/489/829.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The three-pronged approach is as follows: “a challenged law must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) foster no excessive entanglement between church and state” (Witte and Nichols, Religion, 163).

[13] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/465/668.html.

[14] Italics mine.

[15] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[16] Witte and Nichols, Religion, 146.

[17] Ibid., 146-7.

[18] The words in quotation marks are theoretical, in case that was not made clear.

[19] “Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies” (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990], URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[20] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-1-01-03-pm

In Search of ‘The One’: Disfiguring the Myth of American Individualism

In the dramatic dialogue The Symposium, Plato placed on the lips of Aristophanes a tale about the origins of romantic love. Aristophanes recounted how it was that humans had come to search for love. In the beginning, he tells us, the gods created three sexes: male, female, and the androgynous sex. The primal humans had four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces. They used to cartwheel around, and were rather powerful. In due time, Zeus became frightened at the possibility of an invasion of the gods’ residence at the hands of the primal humans—so he sought to strike them down with lightning. But the sacrifices the primal humans rendered unto the gods were enticing, so another way of limiting their primeval power was devised instead: cut them into halves.

Having sliced every primal human into half, the gods watched the humans run around as if lost in a haze looking for their other halves. The males sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining homosexuality. The females sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining lesbianism. And the androgynous primal humans cut in half went looking for their counterparts likewise—thus explaining heterosexuality.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.”[1]

And if ever asked what it was that these lost “halves” desired, they would readily admit they desired to be one, to be whole again. “[T]here is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”[2]

This Greek myth is at the center of American individualism. It pervades our culture, our religion, our romantic rendezvous, our language, our literature and our arts. There is not a single facet of American life that is not rendered absolutely helpless in the face of this myth. What, then, is our version of this Greek myth? In this essay, I will argue that American individualism is the idealized obsession that some singular individual—seen as an “autonomous self” detached from a communal reality—exists who could satisfy another individual’s universal cravings. I believe that our individualism plays a particular role when it comes to human relationships. According to our myth, there exists such a person—whom we endow with the endearing phrase “the one”—who is able to fulfill virtually all (if not all) our primal and present urges. This person, this “the one,” is predominantly seen as the end-all-be-all of our entire existence, a person who is able to make us feel “whole again” (whatever that means). In our myth, then, the community—i.e., communal reality—is almost entirely displaced by thoroughgoing individualism. The person is not seen as a part of a community of human beings that share one another’s burdens; instead, the person is seen as a detached individual who must embody the totality of his or her culture’s existence. No longer is the burden of embodying the aforementioned existence placed on the community; in our American culture—driven by the myth of individualism—the burden is shifted onto the individual: a single individual is thought to be capable of embodying an entire religion, an entire nation, and an entire culture.

When the individual is seen as separate and distinct from his or her community—when the community plays virtually no role in romantic relationships—the burden placed on individuals is exceedingly great, even impossible, in my opinion, to bear. The expectations are enormous, being intolerable to sustain. No single individual, no matter how great they may be, could possibly embody an entire community. No single individual could play the role of spouse, lover, sex symbol, parent, employee, religious cleric, food critic, arts and culture specialist, etc., etc. The myth of American individualism supports the ludicrous idea that a single individual—whom we call “the one”—is able to replace the community. In this essay, I will argue that no individual can replace communal reality—and it is detrimental to the human psyche for someone else to expect the impossible from him or her.

In the beginning was the myth, and the myth gave birth to other myths. A thousand myths sprung from this one myth, and this one myth found its way into a book we know worship and adore: the Bible. And God allegedly endorsed this myth, and he called it good. “…[A]nd the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).[3]

In the book of Genesis, whatever its origins may be, the idea of two becoming one is present—as it is present in Plato’s Symposium. Whatever interpretations one may conjure up in regards to Genesis, the myth, as found in Plato, would be fully and lucidly presupposed in a Jewish text called the Book of Tobit, which dates from around the second-century BCE.

In Tobit, a young man by the name of Tobias falls in love with a virgin girl named Sarah. However, despite the presumed romantic future, Tobias is made aware of a sinister rumor: Sarah had been married to seven different men—and all have been killed by a demon whenever they tried to have sex with her. The demon was thought to be madly in love with Sarah, forbidding any man to sleep with her. En route to Sarah’s house, Tobias was instructed by Raphael, an angel. In his angelic instructions, Raphael told Tobias what he was to do on the first wedding night to make the demon go away. In addition, the angel assured Tobias that Sarah was meant for him. “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made” (Tobit 6:18 NRSV). The story ends on a happy note, as everything goes as planned. My interest continues, however, because of the verse cited. What the angelic instructions presuppose is the idea of romantic predestination “before the world was made.”

Many Americans today, except for the few Catholics, probably have never heard of Tobit. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our culture continues to tell this very story using different people and different names. Our romance novels betray romantic predestination; our pop music betrays romantic predestination; even our language betrays predestination. For example, the fact that a definite article precedes “one” in the phrase “the one” assures us of the singularity of this person’s existence. The idea is that there aren’t just several “ones” out there; nay, there is merely “the one.” If we had not bought into the Greek myth, we would have, at the very least, had a language in which “a one” was a colloquial expression. Such is not the case, however. Instead, the myth is shaping our language, the very discourse governing our romantic relations.

From scattered verses in the Bible to love songs buzzing on the radio, the myth of individualism continues. It is not that individually these ideas form a coherent myth; rather, taken as a whole, the ideas shape the underlying myth governing our romantic endeavors. Somewhere in the thousand or so years in which myths such as those found in Plato’s Symposium or the Book of Tobit found their voice, we have tuned in to them along the way and have become their audience. Whether we like it or not, the myth has ruined marriages. A husband turns to his wife for psychiatric consultation when, in fact, he should probably be turning to a trained psychiatrist, one who is within the community. A wife turns to her husband for an emotional need that may only be satisfied, instead, at an all-girls night out. But the myth is there: she was predestined for you; he was predestined for you. The struggle to make an individual replace a community is an impossible struggle—but the myth sustains that very idea. The marriage fails because an ideal is held up as a kind of reality. “I want my husband to be a good parent, an excellent lover, a perfect engineer, a humorous socialite, a…” The list continues into eternity until it vanishes from human sight. It’s okay, in other words, to have a wife that doesn’t function as your psychologist. Maybe you should actually talk about psychology with your friend who is a psychologist. It’s okay, in other words, to have a husband who doesn’t write you breathtaking poems and take you on wild dates. Maybe you should let him take you to the theater and let Hollywood do the romancing on his behalf. It’s okay to be married—and remain in need of community.

The myth of American individualism needs to be disfigured for what it really is: a myth. It’s not helping anyone by implying that someone could function as your everyone.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Andrei Semenov–for being a good conversationalist as we sipped on Woodford bourbon and discussed the finer things in life…

 

 

[1] Plato, “Symposium,” The Internet Classics Archive, accessed December 17, 2016, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html.

[2] Ibid. Italics mine.

[3] New Living Translation.

the-names-of-god

The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

WORKS CITED:

Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

bloomed-explosions-of-radiant-unknowing

Bloomed Explosions of Radiant Unknowing: A Romantic Poem

I drew her up like water from a spring found flowing

With rains placed on receptive laps of summer

Where flowers bloomed explosions of radiant unknowing

And eyes that haunted mellow stars above her

 

Her eyes a deepest black of bluest seas

Hands trading in burnt bronze for pearls

Damn necklace torn from collar in ecstasy

Restless lips of mine find home eternal

 

I had her pressed against the ground like an iron plow

Her straps dropped like kernels into fertile black soil

Green valleys of rolling love on her naked brow

Kisses etching marks on her skin unspoiled

 

Near the desert regions of her sunshine navel

I found myself lurking in quenched exploration

That thirst of old and fragrant new, entangled

Her body, my body, in Edenic damnation

 

Did I ever know her, and she know me?

Or were we seasons on opposite ends of the year?

Always holding hands at a distance of two trees

One blooming summer and the other budding spring…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I am currently finishing a master’s thesis at Emory University in theology and the philosophy of language. In my spare time, I am working on a romance novel called “The Seduction of Koroleva” and a collection of romantic poetry being written under the working title “In(Finite) Red.”

autumn

“And There It Stood”: A Short Horror

On an eccentric November night, mostly one hundred years ago, at a time when the strange seemed rather charming, a boy child was born to an unlikely couple. The year was 1910. The Titanic had not yet sunk (but it was about to). And the First World War had not yet been started.

The boy’s parents were both engineers at Cambridge.

His mother sunk into trepidation the moment she first beheld his eyes. All she could see were eyes—big, looming eyes. Eyes that could swallow an entire horizon. Eyes that were like two overgrown moons floating effortlessly in a fluorescent night sky. She fell immediately in love with the boy.

They named him Wesley. But he preferred Wezel. He was a precocious child who spent most of his days studying his immediate surroundings.

At the age of seven he thought himself to be Vincent van Gogh’s “spirit-child.”

So he painted The Starry Night. An art historian came to see it. He walked around the room in a most elegant manner, now pacing up and now pacing down the entirety of the room. “Humm—pff!” he would exclaim as he’d pivot on his heels. “It is peculiarly unique relative to other replicas of the work in that the brush stokes are exact, measured with modest reserve, and pedantically calculated.”

The little Wezel loved perfection, and his artwork became a Cambridge sensation. It was rumored that during the First World War, when Cambridge’s own art department housed Van Gogh’s painting at the Fitzwilliam Museum it was actually Wenzel’s artwork that was on display—for the museum curators were “afraid of a loss of the original artwork during a potential air raid.” And so, in a matter of a mere eight years—by now it was 1918—Wezel’s fame grew beyond the confines of a single bedroom apartment that housed the two professors and their big-eyed child.

During his years at a local primary school, Wezel made two friends: one was the teacher and the other a kitchen rat. The teacher shared her lunchtime cookies with him, and he shared his portion with the kitchen rat.

The students didn’t like Wezel for several reasons. One, he looked like a disheveled old soul—whose entire physiognomy was reduced to an emphasis that was placed on his eyes and his “death-glare.” Two, he could not understand ordinary human language. He struggled to talk the baby-talk of his fellow peers, and so, in a most necessary manner, engaged his teachers in dialogue regarding math, logic, and a myriad of oil-on-canvas painting techniques.

His third friend need not be mentioned here, since, if I recall correctly, she never returned the favor. Her name was Katherine, and she avoided Wezel’s impulsive romantic approaches. He once tried to share the teacher’s half-cookie with her but she refused. So he went to the kitchen and gave it to the rat instead. Such was the result of his first dreamy endeavor.

Because the students feared him, Wezel had to reallocate his energy-expenditures in a more fitting manner. By the summer of 1920, Wezel—then being a decade old—locked himself in his parent’s attic (they had moved a few blocks into a small home) and vowed to never reappear unless he had produced a masterpiece. His parents fed him through a tiny crack in the wall, sustaining him for six weeks and three days with crackers, chocolate and prenatal multivitamins. Every third day he requested a large, boiling pot of coffee for “mental energy.” His parents complied. Staying true to his word, Wezel emerged—six weeks and three days later—with the art in his hand a dark and forlorn figure, bearing the anguish of a tortured genius.

His parents rushed to greet their wild-eyed child. His mother fell to the ground kissing his dimpled cheeks and swearing that she would never let him do this to her again. His father stood by silently watching the strange emotions take over his mostly rational wife.

“What did you create this time, Wes,” his mother asked tenderly.

The boy looked into her eyes without blinking.

“Is he horrified by us?” his mother thought to herself. “Why, surely, he knows we love him dearly!”

Wezel walked past his parents, as if in a daze, with an old cloth-sheet covering his hidden masterpiece. During dinner, after he had broken the silence, and having alleviated his mother’s fears, Wezel requested the presence of Sydney Cockerell, who was, at the time, the director of the Fitzwilliam.

The following day, with an eye-loop in hand, Director Cockerell came to see Wezel. He walked up and down the room like the last art historian.

“Aren’t all these art historian creatures the same?” Wezel silently asked himself. “They walk in the same manner; no two are different!”

“Yes, yes—indeed! Yes! Hmm. Wow. Yes, indeed!” the Director kept mumbling to himself. “Yes, very particular. Almost real. Yes, yes! Real. As real as rain in London!”

The piece measured one hundred sixty centimeters by two hundred. It was a large oil-on-canvas painting depicting Wezel’s last place of residence: the attic. It was an accurate depiction of reality. So accurate, in fact, that Cockerell spent the following days speaking about it incessantly.

“You should have seen it. The attic. Oh, god. How authentic it was! The sheer splendor of the piece,” he told everyone he met. “I was transported there—and have not left since!”

The piece was purchased by the museum for millions of pounds, allowing Wezel to drop out of primary school, pay for his parent’s first honeymoon vacation, and resume all artistic activity immediately and forever.

Within weeks, word got out that the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was seeking out the company of none other than our very own Wezel. At the time, Wezel was unfamiliar with Wittgenstein’s thinking. He had, however, gone through Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, a book he criticized for “fatalistic logical errors in its presentation of the foundation of mathematics.” Wittgenstein, having heard and having seen Wezel’s work became all the more interested in meeting the decade-old human being who criticized—quite accurately, in his own opinion—the Principia.

As fate would have it, on an August evening, Wezel met with Wittgenstein. To this day, nobody knows the exact contents of the conversation, but from what I could gather, it seems that Wezel encouraged Wittgenstein to write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Moreover, it was rumored that Wezel wrote parts of it. For example aphorism 2.12 reads: “The picture is a model of reality.”[1] The “picture” Wittgenstein had in mind—or, if Wezel wrote this, then “the picture Wezel had in his own mind”—was none other than The Attic (as Wezel’s masterpiece was later called). Per Wezel’s own account, the first remark Wittgenstein made upon his meeting him was: “But your eyes! How large must the world appear to them!” To which Wezel replied, “I can see the world accurately.”

In 1922, the year Wezel turned twelve, was the year Wittgenstein published his work. It became a philosophical sensation overnight. Wittgenstein became famous, while Wezel became a historical relic of the past.

In 1931, during a meeting at the Vienna Circle, in which Kurt Gödel was expounding his recently published ideas on the “incompleteness theorems,” Wezel met Wittgenstein yet again. The years had done nothing but shed their blessings on Wittgenstein; he was cheerful, optimistic, and open to new ideas. Upon seeing Wezel, he hugged the now grown, young lad.

“How is your work coming along?” he asked after the discussions were over.

“I became a professor of philosophy, Ludwig,” Wezel replied nostalgically. “I gave up art when I met you.”

No, you cannot say that. I would not encourage the study of philosophy,” Wittgenstein replied tersely and with peculiar force. “You must resume your art. You have a talent.”

“You don’t understand, Ludwig,” Wezel said in a hushed voice. “I’m now depicting reality with language—just as you suggested!”

“Why language?!” Wittgenstein moaned out loud. “The world is going to suffer much having lost you.”

With that, Wittgenstein angrily walked out, leaving the Circle. He never spoke with Wezel again.

In 1932, Wezel published an article titled “The Impossibility of Atheism.” In it he argued what he had argued ever since he met Wittgenstein: language is a depiction of objective reality. “In our minds we create a pictorial representation of the world. This picture of reality corresponds with the real world. There is a direct relationship between the picture in our minds and the world around us. Words refer to things in the world. An apple is an apple because there is the word ‘apple’ and its objective referent: an apple in the real world. Unicorns imagined in our mind are not an accurate picture of reality because there are no unicorns in the world. For words to have meaning, they must be grounded in reality.”

That was the beginning of the paper. Professor Wezel argued that Wittgenstein was right in his Tractatus: only that which exists in the real world should have words in our language. Since God did not exist in our world, there was no use having a mental image of God. Where did this image come from? If not from the world, then where from?

The second part of the paper proved the impossibility of atheism. “Since God is thought to be a metaphysical Being existing outside of the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum, it is, in fact, impossible to speak about God’s existence or non-existence thereof. God, as understood by some authors of the Bible, for example, does not exist in this world; He is above the world, above the natural order of things. Since God is outside of the world, being eternal and non-objective, language cannot be used either against God or for God: ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.’”[2]

The paper caused a sensation amongst both the scientists and theologians. The theologians were angered at the fact that Wezel attacked positive statements about God, while relishing his attacks on the atheists for their positive claims regarding God’s non-existence. The atheists, on the other hand, while happy that Wezel supported their thesis that religion was meaningless, were angered by the fact that he debunked the possibility of atheism. And so neither side was happy or unhappy: they were both equally miserable. Wezel, for his part, rejoiced tremendously that he could irritate people.

In 1933, a young professor by the name of Dolly, specializing in a secret field pioneered by her called micro-tectonic astro-physiology, heard Wezel’s paper being read at some academic society of sorts. In a matter of hours she arranged for a meeting with that “most dazzling of minds.” Wezel proposed to Dolly the following day; they were married the following weekend.

 

And this is where our story truly begins.

You see, Wezel’s eccentric gaze frightened many people out of many nights of peaceful rest. Some even avoided walking past him on their way to Cambridge just to dodge his “piercing, eerie stare.” His wife, however, a simple beauty of extraordinary mental capacities, was blind. And this was, perhaps, the only reason she never left Wezel: she never had a chance to be frightened by him.

On their first night together, Wezel awakened at three in the morning to find his wife tranquilly sleeping. He had, for many years, struggled with imagined demons. Every time he closed his voluptuous eyes, he would immediately begin sensing the presence of toxic evil. Not only did he feel the company of the demonic, he also imagined it. Demons of various shapes and sizes resided in his mind, swimming out from their lagoons every time his eyelids shut.

On this summer night, in early September, it was no different. Wezel kept imagining the demonic. He would blink only to be bolted back into the wide-eyed and terrified.

He praised God that his wife was blind. “If only she knew the demons I struggle with…and what I’m about to do…” he thought to himself.

He reached over the bed and quietly opened his drawer. He fumbled around for the duct tape.

Having found it, he gently brought it in to his chest. The roll of tape felt cool against his nervously hot skin. His sore fingers dug into the worn edges, seeking out a place where he could grip the tape.

He counted to ten under his breath.

And slowly made noiseless progress. “Good,” he muttered under his breath in the most silent of manners. “At least she can’t hear me.”

The project continued. He slowly removed two pieces of tape measuring two centimeters a piece in length.

Without disturbing his wife, he placed a single piece on his eyebrow, taping his eyelid to it to keep his eye from closing. He did the same with the other eye.

In a matter of minutes, he was fast asleep.

 

The following night, around two thirty in the morning, Wezel awakened to the sound of heavy breathing. Once he trained his ears to listen—to really listen—he heard nothing but silence. The breathing was all an illusion. What he thought was not real; it did not correspond with reality.

He closed his eyes again—and rested.

Only moments later, he imagined a beast of tremendous terror standing before him. He opened his eyes.

There was nothing there.

“Professor Wezel,” he reassured himself professionally in the most cool and academic of ways. “Your language, your imagination does not correspond to reality. There are no demons—not even gods.”

He convinced himself of this—and fell back asleep.

 

After a few weeks of living with his wife, Wezel began to realize the uncertainty of reality. His wife was, according to him, a schizophrenic. One minute she wanted Italian for dinner; the next minute, she wanted French. One second she felt cold next to him; the next second, she felt too hot. He would close his eyes, imagine her wanting Italian food—only to open them and have her state something entirely different.

And it drove him mad. She made no sense to him.

One night, before bed, he imagined they would make love. It was a Wednesday, and they always had sex on Wednesdays. He closed his eyes and imagined his wife’s naked body. Then he opened them.

She was still dressed in her nightgown.

“Maybe we will have sex next Wednesday,” he said to himself. “Maybe she just forgot. It is, after all, November—and people don’t make any sense during the holidays.”

 

The following Wednesday, Wezel, by means of induction, decided that his wife would not have sex with him tonight either. He closed his eyes and imagined that, when he’d open them, she’d be fully dressed.

And so he opened them.

She was naked.

 

For the rest of the week, Wezel slept relatively peacefully. He asked the leading sexologist at Cambridge what the reason was for his unusual calm and discovered that sex was, indeed, the reason. Wezel made note of this in his journals.

 

On a stormy night in December, just before Christmas, Wezel’s unrest returned. For the past few weeks, he had been lecturing his students on the certainty of reality. And, having come clean with his academic peers, he was not entirely certain of the certainty that he so expounded. “It is entirely possible that I know nothing,” he once said out loud to them in exasperation.

His demons were haunting him—changing him as a person. They began speaking to him, telling him to kill his wife. He found her to be too unpredictable. And so, if the demons were on the side of certainty, then surely they were right. She was, after all, a very uncertain creature.

He closed his eyes and imagined the demonic persuading him.

He opened his eyes and there was nothing there.

He counted to ten while taking a deep breath. “This is all just a bad dream—an inaccurate picture of reality,” he restlessly convinced himself.

He thought he heard a voice—it was directly addressing him.

He opened his eyes.

And there it stood.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

 

NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Wittgenstein obviously existed. I can assure you: he never met Professor Wezel. 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 33.

[2] Ibid., 108.

autumn

How Trump Grabbed America By the Pussy: The Loss of the Evangelical Movement’s Virginity

Donald J. Trump has just committed the greatest political heist in modern history. He has single handedly destroyed the Republican National Committee.

But he did not stop there.

In a totally surprising move last night—November 8th 2016—Trump additionally annihilated the Democratic National Committee. (The Democrats’ hopes for a Clinton presidency were bamboozled out of existence right before their eyes.)

And yet, that wasn’t enough for Trojan Horse Trump: he licked the asshole right off the Christian evangelical right, forever stunting whatever shit we may have expected to come forth from their backward water churches. In essence, stealing the right’s virginity.

“Wait a second,” my fellow evangelicals may state in utter dismay. “What are you talking about? Trump is our guy! Look here now, he was endorsed by our systematic theologian, Wayne Grudem. And Eric Metaxas. And John MacArthur. And James Dobson. And…”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. It sucks to be you. Your trumped up Messiah is just another politician—oh the irony!—catering to your bigoted needs.”

Maybe what goes around comes around? Have any of you thought about that? The evangelical right has been an ass to many different people and ideas—from its persecution of gays to its inarticulate views on abortion, amongst many others. While Trump has claimed to be no sugar-coated, dyed-in-the-wool politician, he has, in every essence, embraced their actions and habits already.

Let that sink in.

Within twenty-four hours of winning the election, Trump has removed his so-called “ban on Muslims” from his website. Yup. It’s gone. Nada. Nothing there. Just another smoke-and-mirrors magician performing his magico-political act.

Whoops. There go his statements. Just magically vaporized right before your bigoted eyes.

Sorry—and I thought that Trump was the bigot here. Maybe not. Maybe Trump was just pulling your legs, you bigots, you!

And then there was the whole “I can’t vote for Clinton because she believes in late-term abortions.” Oh, really? Like, do you even know that late-term abortions are restricted in many states? And, if we are going to be completely honest, statistically speaking, “only 1.3% of abortions in the United States occur at 21 weeks of pregnancy or later,” writes The New York Times. But facts are none of my business.

Oh, and while we’re at it, it’s not like Trump is pro-life. (I bet you didn’t see that coming.) Contrary to popular opinion, Trump has not included a pro-life position on his website. In fact, he seems to never have had included it.

It’s only been twenty-four hours since the election and Trump is already a well-groomed politician, telling people what they want to hear, tickling their ears to orgasm. The evangelicals—like silly, little virgin girls asking to be caressed in inappropriate places—got (and will continue to get) what they deserve: a fucking rape-job by none other than Trump himself, grabbing them by the pussy.

The joke has been on you, Christians.

Pull your heads out of your asses and start thinking. Please. For Christ’s sake—and I’m not invoking the Lord’s name in vain here—start being reasonable!

This guy, this pimp you have acquired as your “savior,” married, for all practical purposes, a porn star. Doesn’t that mean something to you? I thought you were all over that “purity culture” shit? What happened? Michelle Obama’s bare arms not bare enough for you? Seriously.

Wake the fuck up.

At this point, allow me to be a self-righteous fool on behalf of you (Paul did this in Second [not Two] Corinthians 10-13): you guys (and gals) have really lost your cookies this time. I’m telling it like it is. You have lost your cookies, and I’m not sure you’ll ever get them back.

Trump has out-Trojaned all of you. If voting for Clinton was immoral, then voting for Trump was truly post-lapsarian. (If you don’t know that theological word, go back to seminary—or ask your pastor.) Trump just did you over like a cheap prostitute. Hell, you didn’t even make him wear a condom—for all we know, you, the evangelical right, may now be carrying his baby.

Whatever promises your “new Jesus” has made you, they are as wishful as your bigoted wish to have a Muslim ban enforced in this country. (Personally, I don’t care about Islam. But I’m not one to tell people whom they can and cannot worship.)

As a matter of fact, Trump was never yours to begin with. He was always a heretic, an outcast, so to speak. He donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He supported Clinton during her campaigns. All things considered, Trump is a democrat. A liberal one at that.

Having said that, I’m not exactly sure what the real problem is (or was): did you all just not like Clinton for being a woman or…? Seriously. Cough it up. It’s pretty obvious to me that he was never a Republican. He was never pro-life. He was never pro-traditional marriage. He was never pro-no-sex-with-porn-stars. He was never pro-you-name-it. I’m not even sure he was pro-anything (in your world).

Finally, I would like to congratulate you on voting into office a relatively liberal person. If I am correct—which I think I am—it seems to me that you, the evangelical right, have just been punked.

It is no secret that, for years, evangelical America has been waiting for someone to come along and grab it/her “by the pussy.” Well, you’ve been grabbed.

 

The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

Change and progress are, inherently, opposed by human nature. Humans do not like change, even if it is change for the better. An ancient text relates what a group of Israelites felt once they were freed from slavery. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of liberation from slavery; it is also the story of how shitty human beings are in response to beneficial change. Michael Walzer, commenting on the Exodus narrative, writes that one response to liberation is that of “murmuring.” That is, murmurings proceed from “not someone who is adjusted to his slavery but someone who complains endlessly about his liberation.”[1] As David Pacini notes, “[T]he greater price of freedom, haunted by evil, is that we live in the permanent possibility of falling apart.”[2] The price of freedom is: “murmurings” and “falling apart.” Or, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

A slave who had been a slave all his life could not be saved overnight from his “slave mentality.” To invoke a popular quip (modified for our purposes): “you can take a man out of slavery, but you cannot take the slavery out of the man.” As the Israelites marched onwards towards the Promised Land, they were out of their comfort zones, marching into a future holding the unknown. Back “home” in Egypt, they had shelter, food, and the comfort of familiarity; up ahead, in the desert regions of Sinai, they faced the “permanent possibility of falling apart.” And so, in the strangest of fashions—or maybe it wasn’t so strange after all?—the Israelites complained. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11, NIV). Instead of freedom, the Israelites—upon tasting its bittersweet waters—demanded, quite adamantly, a return to their previous state: a state of slavery.

In light of such reflections, it is certainly possible that, as some claim, change must occur slowly. You boil the water too fast, and the frog jumps out; you heat it up slowly, and you boil it to death. Humans are like that frog: you pressure us into changing overnight—even if the change is in our favor—and we’ll bite your head off. Instead, what is needed sometimes is the slow and steady change of progress towards the ideal. In light of recent events, events which are affecting our country in numerous ways, it’d be wise for both legislature and people to recognize how instinctually frightened the human species is to change.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 50.

[2] David S. Pacini, Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35.

autumn

In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

Materialism has been criticized on many grounds that I will not cover here. In fact, I have, in various ways, been strongly opposed to materialism. (Read my essay Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay as a case in point.) That is, until now. In this paper, I will attempt to articulate a sympathetic approach towards materialism. More specifically, I will argue that materialism, when seen through the perspective of the philosophy of language, is actually a type of “language” used to communicate certain things (like wealth, power, prestige, responsibility, success, etc.). In fact, “the pursuit and possession of grand material objects” (my modest, working definition of “materialism” in this paper) is beneficial to a human being attempting to communicate and convey certain values and/or facts. First, I will argue that the philosophy of language sheds light on how we humans employ “communication” (and it is not simply reduced to “language” and “writing”). Second, I will argue that materialism allows humans to communicate certain messages rapidly/promptly (without resorting to “proving yourself”). Third, I will argue that this is actually a good thing, that materialism, as I see it, is beneficial to finite human beings.

Paul Ricoeur, a phenomenologist interested in language, once said, “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[1] That is, within our words, within our language, that is where all life and communicating occurs—it is our “kingdom.” Ricoeur defined language as using “symbols,” symbols that functioned as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols had multiple meanings, and, hence, could confuse interpreters. Ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which used symbols—occurred were inevitably going to end up being interpretations. However, it should be noted that symbols in and of themselves need not be inherently reduced to language/writing. A symbol could be a national flag or, as in my case, a luxury vehicle. All such “symbols” communicate and stand-in-for something else. (A luxury vehicle, for example, may communicate to those around you that you are a successful individual who is responsible, who will provide for a future family, etc., etc.) The point here is the following: as we try to communicate things to those around us, we use symbols all the time. In most cases, symbols are words or phrases. I say, “I love you” and that means that I will take you on dates, buy you dinner, send you flowers on Thursdays, be concerned about your wellbeing, etc., etc. The phrase, “I love you,” is a stand-in-for something else. In and of itself it means…nothing. (Of course, this, too, could be debated.) I employ the phrase in such a way that it points to something outside it; it points to actions I will take on behalf of my beloved. The phrase, in this case, is a “symbol.”

Ricoeur writes: “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[2] Ultimately, he writes, “[T]here is interpretation wherever there is multiple meaning…”[3] Since symbols are almost always open to being interpreted in a plurality of ways—and, thus, of being found guilty of “double meaning”—it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the meaning is.

Going back to our luxury vehicle example, the “symbol” (i.e., the vehicle) may also be interpreted to mean, “I am a thorough-going materialist only interested in material things. I care not for relationships and people. Give me a dollar, and I’ll sell you my soul.” Of course, this is one way of reading materialism. It is one way of interpreting the symbol.

But notice what I am saying here, even as I speak the critique: it is merely one way of interpretation. (“One” way implies there are more ways.) It is possible to behold a symbol (i.e., a luxury vehicle) and to interpret it in a different way, another way. It is possible to see its owner as a good person. It is possible to see its owner as being a thoughtful person who goes to work on time, is punctual, cares about his family and tries to provide for them. Notice, then, that there is nothing in this interpretation of the symbol that is utterly negative and/or derogatory. In fact, I would like to be such a person. And maybe you’d like to meet such a person.

The next point I want to make has to do with prompt communication. If I am attempting to—let us theorize here—meet a girl, in what ways should I go about doing it? First, I am a finite human being, bound to space-time. I cannot be everywhere at once, meeting millions of girls in the span of one minute. Being thus bound, I have to make the most of my time. Second, and by implication, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to communicate things clearly and promptly. I could, in theory, be an “anti-materialist,” and resort to explaining to each and every girl I meet that I am successful, that I will take care of her, that I am a responsible human being, etc., etc. That’s one way of doing. It’s a very time-consuming way, but it is certainly an option. (If you have the time for it, go ahead and do it, I say!) In this case, you would essentially have to “prove” to every girl you meet all of the above. Or, you could do things differently.

It is possible to use symbols that communicate more rather than less. A picture says a thousand words. Driving up on a luxury vehicle conveys more than several hours of conversation over coffee. (And what makes you think she’ll believe you when all you’re doing is feeding her “words”?) That is, the symbol (i.e., the vehicle) conveys more than a million words spoken in defense of your alleged success.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, materialism—as I have defined it here—seems to be something that is possibly beneficial to human beings. It allows us to communicate things to those around us. It allows us to do more with less. It also allows us to spend our coffee dates talking about things like love and romance, loves and hates, rather than trying to prove to the Other that we are responsible, successful, wealthy, etc., etc. In other words, I stand by my word: buy yourself that Lamborghini and enjoy your finite life!

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

Dedicated to: Petr Bulkhak—for being a good conversationalist regarding this particular subject.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “La Parole est mon royaume,” Espirit, XXIII (February, 1995), p. 192.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98. Italics original for both citations.

[3] Ibid.