Friday, October 2, 2009

Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Gandhi

1. Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York: MacMillan, 1980) 114.

The Zoroastrian tradition, beginning to take shape in the Achaemenid period of Persian history, would exist in close proximity to Jews for many centuries.

The Achaemenid Empire lasted from 550-330 B.C.E., which includes the time that the Persians controlled Israel. According to Alan Segal, Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the Sassanian Empire in 225 C.E. at the earliest (Two Powers in Heaven, p. 19). But perhaps Seltzer is still correct to say that the Jews had exposure to the Zoroastrian traditions during the sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E..

I know wikipedia is not the best source, but I like its article on Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is about good triumphing over evil under a messianic sort of figure, a perfect world replacing our current imperfect one, and the resurrection of the dead. At the same time, its apocalyptic, eschatological mindset didn't lead it to devalue this world, for it maintained that good thoughts, good words, and good deeds in the here-and-now create happiness and hold chaos at bay.

Judaism has many of the same ideas. Did any of them come from Zoroastrianism? Resurrection at the last day wasn't really a prominent idea before the exile, for many Israelites believed the dead went to Sheol. After the exile, when the Jews came into contact with Persia, it became increasingly emphasized. While there was a belief before the exile that the Davidic line would be restored and a time of peace would ensue, I'm not sure if pre-exilic Israelite thought believed in the Messiah who would come and fix everything. Good deeds holding chaos at bay? That's an idea that seemed to pervade the ancient Near East, which believed in holding the forces of chaos at bay. Maybe Judaism got some ideas from Zoroastrianism. Some of them it could have gotten from elsewhere. Or some conservatives may argue that God gave Israel these ideas, which overlapped with those of other cultures, who themselves may have received them from God at some point. I don't know.

2. Eugene Mihaly, A Song to Creation: A Dialogue with a Text (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1975) 41-45.

I enjoyed Mihaly's description of Gnosticism, which (according to him) had the following tenets: this world is evil because it was created by a wicked Demiurge, but the top benevolent God offers us hope that our souls will be united with him after death. There's no point trying to make this world a better place, for it is hopelessly corrupt. In the meantime, we should avoid fleshly desires or (for other Gnostics) overindulge in them to thumb our noses at the world's morality. We should learn the path to salvation (the soul's escape from the body at death) and use magic to keep demonic forces at bay.

Part of me can sympathize with Gnosticism. Is the world good or evil? I can see both. There are many things to enjoy, but there's also a lot of bad stuff that leads people to question if a benevolent God is truly running the show: starvation, disease, poverty, wars, etc. And there are some things that (at first sight) don't seem to be the product of a wise, benevolent God. Why is so much of the world covered with salt-water, for example? So I can somewhat understand a perspective that says, "Look, the world is a bad place, and you may or may not survive it, but remember that the top God loves you, and you'll be with him after death if you pursue the path of salvation." What's one solution to the problem of evil in the world? Say that this world doesn't matter, since there's an afterlife anyway! "Why expect this world to be fair?," the Gnostics ask. "The Demiurge runs it, so it often is not fair!"

Many Gnostics may have been ascetic because matter could trap people to follow the Demiurge rather than pursuing the top God of love. Food, drink, and sex can easily trap people, lead to a lack of personal fulfillment, and have other negative effects (e.g., children out of wedlock). It's like the Matrix: that one guy preferred the illusory joys of food to the "real world," so he picked captivity to the Smiths over freedom. That may be how the Gnostics viewed material pleasures.

I wonder if there was any benevolence in Gnostic ethics, or if it was mostly about asceticism, entering a good afterlife, and warding off demons in the here-and-now. If this world doesn't matter, then why help the poor? Was there any concept in Gnosticism of developing a benevolent character in preparation for meeting the divine?

In a sense, Christianity has some Gnostic ideas, or, rather, ideas that overlap with Gnosticism. Paul never says that Satan created the cosmos, for he assumes that the one true God did that. But he does call Satan the "god of this world" (II Corinthians 4:4). Paul believes in resurrection, but he also expresses eagerness at leaving his earthly body and being with the Lord (II Corinthians 5). No wonder there were Gnostics who felt comfortable using Paul! But kindness was definitely a part of Paul's ethics.

3. Today is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Perhaps I should watch the movie about his life, but I'm not really in the mood to right now. One thing I like about the movie was when the British were complaining that British schoolchildren were writing papers about Gandhi the hero! I also appreciated the part where the British were demonstrating their barbarity against the Indians, and a reporter called someone, saying something like, "The moral authority of the British empire has fallen!"

On second thought, maybe I will watch the movie tonight...

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