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Saturday, May 7, 2016
History ... Spirituality ...

Here’s a bit of East meets West. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Torah, has a line that was favored by the industrial-era European and Euro-American entrepreneurs who exploited the riches of the natural world so as to provide the human species (well, the better-off portion of that species) with vast amounts of wealth and comfort. That line is found at Genesis 1:26. I’m going to quote the line from the plain-vanilla New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

This line was probably written by the Torah’s Priestly source sometime in the 6th Century BCE in ancient Israel.

So, this writing reflected the mindset of a very early Jewish tribal tradition on the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. But over the many centuries of Euro-Mediterranean history, the Torah was co-opted by the westward and northwardly expanding Christian religion, which integrated the Pentateuch into the Christian Bible; it thus became part of the heritage of Europe. Once science and technology started to revolutionize the European world in the 15th and 16th Century, this line was used as justification by those who sought to use this revolution for the exploitation of the natural world. (They also liked the line at Psalms 8:6-8 — “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”) Only in modern times, when the long-run costs and burdens of ecological over-use is becoming more and more apparent, has this interpretation been questioned.

Did it have to be this way? Did anyone anywhere else think differently? I recently came across a little Daoist writing in a book by Thomas Cleary called “The Spirit of Tao”. The passage is called “Who for Whom”, and it comes from a mysterious Daoist text called the Liezi or Lieh-Tzu. The writings and thoughts in this book are attributed to Lie Yukou, a 5th century BCE Chinese philosopher. However, the true dating of the work is a matter of controversy. Some scholars feel that the Liezi could contain a core of circa 400 BCE authentic writings of Lie Yukou; others believe that it could be a circa 400 CE compilation forged by Zhang Zhan. That’s about an 800 year difference! But it’s still pretty old, one way or the other.

And either way, the “Who for Whom” passage as translated by Cleary provides an interesting contrast to Genesis 1:26. Here is the passage:

Once a man held a huge banquet with a thousand guests. When someone presented a gift of fish and fowl, the host said appreciatively, “Heaven is generous to the people indeed, planting cereals and creating fish and fowl for our use.” The huge crowd of guests echoed this sentiment.

OK, so far it sounds pretty much in line with Genesis, Heaven and all. But then comes a dissenting view:

A youth about twelve years old, however, who had been sitting in the most remote corner of the banquet hall, now came foreword and said to the host, “It is not as you say, sir. All beings in the universe are living creatures on a par with us. No species is higher or lower in rank than another, it’s just that they control each other by differences in their intelligence and power; they eat each other, but that does not mean they were produced for each other. People take what they can eat and eat it, but does that mean that heaven produced that for people? If so, then since mosquitoes bite skin and tigers and wolves eat flesh, does that not mean that heaven made humans for the mosquitoes and created flesh for tigers and wolves?”

Well . . . that’s quite a lot to ponder, isn’t it !! Pretty far ahead of most any sort of thinking going on at the time in the western world, even if this was written in the 4th Century CE. It’s even more impressive if it does go back to the 5th Century BCE. Well, actually there were some humans in the western world in those years who would favor the Liezi view over the Genesis view . . . the Native Americans, of course. They eventually became the victims of the European ideal of natural resource exploitation, as justified (seemingly) by Genesis 1:26 and Psalm 8. And interestingly, if you trace the pre-historical migration of the Native people, you find that they were an Asian spin-off, a band who wandered across the land-bridge that used to exist between Siberia and far-eastern Alaska, perhaps 15,000 years ago. So, perhaps the Native propensity for appreciation of nature had some sort of genetic or pre-cultural common ground with the Taoists who emerged in the Asian mainland.

Today, the USA is about to replace the portrait of one of its former Presidential heros, Andrew Jackson, with a black woman (i.e., Hariett Tubman) who helped to assist the slaves who were being exploited in the first century of American history. Andrew Jackson was once fondly recalled as “Old Hickory”, a leader who stood up for the common man. However, we now appreciate that Jackson focused almost exclusively on the common WHITE man. He is now recalled for the great suffering and death caused when he ordered the settled Native tribes in the Southern states to be re-located into the western territories, the infamous “Trail of Tears“. At the time, of course, it was felt that the White Man, with his Christian Bible, was the epitome of human civilization, and that Biblical lines like Genesis 1:26 (along with Biblical passages that were felt to justify slavery such as Psalms 123:2 and in the Christian Testament, Ephesians 6:5) made it all “right with Heaven”.

It took long, too long . . . but we finally are starting to appreciate the mistakes that our ancestors were making in their exploitative excesses, mistakes that would have been apparent to some people from the far East. Those historical mistakes had become brutally apparent to their distant relatives who had migrated to what had become the American nation. The wisdom behind the “Who for Whom” point of view still has a long way to go, but . . . as anthropogenic climate change effects become more and more apparent over time, more and more of the Western industrialized world will “get it”. Let’s hope that we’re not figuring the “Who for Whom” out too late.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:27 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, What interests me about this Daoist text is how much it is like the story in the New Testament, where a 12 year old boy gets up to “instruct” the elders; sounds much like the Bible story where Jesus left his mother and father, stayed behind, got his parents upset, and was found “instructing” the priests in the temple; Jesus might have been about 12 about that time. (Or some variation on the theme; I think I’ve got that story right.)

    I noticed when I went some years ago to see the King Tut exhibit how much the Egyptian religion had contributed to the Christian religion, or perhaps it was that the Jewish/Christian religion has “stolen” from the Egyptians. It seems as possibly as far back as 400 BCE there’s a Daoist story that resembles a story in the New Testament.

    Old Testament/New Testament: As I see them they are all one book; Christianity is simply a continuation of Judaism. And now here’s a story that goes back perhaps more than 500 years before the NT.

    It seems there were a lot of beliefs and stories that went with the beliefs that long preceded the OT and the NT; the authors of the various books thus took the prevailing stories and beliefs, borrowed them, fit in the characters they wanted to fit in; and thus a “new” story for the times. It makes sense. After all for the most part in the very early Christian times many people were illiterate; they needed stories to learn; “adjusting” an old story to fit the times seemed sensible.

    These old, old stories must have some validity to them OR have something in the story that was understandable to the many different peoples for a long period of time; they have survived for thousands of years.

    I DO think that slavery is not a thing that was new to the Bible. The idea of slaves was a “taken for granted” thing almost anywhere you look in the Bible, which means it must have existed long before either the OT or NT were written. It may be that the Asian peoples did not “justify” slavery; but then I wonder how it is that the Caste system, so long in existence in India, had the “Untouchables”, who might as well have been called slaves. (This group no longer called “Untouchables”; the name has been changed to “Dalits”; thus somehow eliminating the “Untouchables”.)

    I might add that perhaps the area of China did not have “slaves” as such; but their women certainly might as well have been slaves. In fact, women until the 20th century (and subtly still) were not considered anywhere near as good as men. All one has to do is listen to Donald Trump talk about women today, and we can see how far women have come, which isn’t very far. MCS
    P.S. Absolutely NONE of this is personal or says anything about YOU; it’s simply my reflection on something I’ve been thinking about for a longer or shorter time.

    Comment by Mary S. — May 8, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

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