Having just returned from a marvellous time walking the Milford Track it is a little difficult returning to the demands of daily life. Would that life could always be tramping and good food. However I regained my enthusiasm for newsletter writing with an odd coincidence. We often find that when made aware of some new information all sorts of references around the new subject crop up. I took away with me a pile of books, (I didn’t carry them all on the track), including Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler. This novel deals with slavery in Africa and the US. As part of the novel, Zimler imparts some interesting information that connects with the recent toxic honey illness that has afflicted a number of people in the Coromandel. Bees gathering nectar from the NZ Tutu flower cause this toxic honey.
Toxic honey was also a problem in 401 BC. Xenophon, a Greek General, led his soldiers in a hasty retreat from Babylon. They came across a pleasant campsite at Trabzon. Fish were available in the nearby sea, the hills were covered with beautiful rhododendrons, and the woods harboured rich beehives. Naturally, the soldiers feasted on honeycombs with unpleasant results. Xenophon wrote how all the men were seized with vomiting and purging and were ill for several days. Several centuries later in 67 BC, the Greek physician Kateuas, who was King Mithridates of Pontus’s chief adviser, recalled this and set a trap for the Roman general Pompey who has set out to conquer King Mithridates. They lured Pompey and his army to Trabzon where the soldiers feasted on the honey, and while Pompey’s army was ill, they were massacred by the waiting army of Mithridates. This is the first recorded use of a biological poison as a weapon of mass attack. Zimler weaves this use of ‘mad honey’ into the storyline of Hunting Midnight.
Meetings: Please mark your diaries now and come along to add to the discussions. Meetings are normally scheduled for the first Monday of the month.
April monthly meeting: Monday 7 April, The seven Deadly Sins and their modern equivalents
Guidelines for our human behaviour -should they be extended? What do you think? Agree or Disagree?
Venue for meeting, Turnbull House, Wellington. We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.00 pm.
Any thoughts and musings you may wish to convey are very welcome.
Send to Kent at [email protected]
The Purple Economy by Max Wallace: Max’s book, the subject of an article “The God dividend” by Sally Blundell under a banner header “Purple economy” in the latest NZ Listener, February 2-8, 2008 p. 27, is available from the University Bookshop, Dunedin.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 6 April, 4 May Radio Access have now developed their website to enable listeners to listen to programmes already recorded. If you have missed our Humanist Access spot, then, go to www.accessradio.org.nz . The February broadcast was not aired due to technical issues with Radio Access and was broadcast instead in our March slot on the 9 March. Our Broadcasts are every 4 weeks so mark your diaries. Future broadcasts will be 4 May, 1 & 28 June, 26 July, 23 August and 20 September.
Email discussion group: Is operating on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism . Have you ventured into this group to contribute to the discussion?
Matariki and the Winter Solstice: Time to think ahead to the passing of the seasons. Once a year in the winter sky before dawn the star constellation Matariki (the Pleiades) signals the Maori New Year. It comes into view low on the north-eastern horizon appearing in the tail of the Milky Way in the last days of May or in early June, just before dawn. It was a time to remember the dead and celebrate new life. Matariki is also associated with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day in winter. The North American Indian Pawnee culture also celebrates the appearance of this constellation. The Pawnee people named these seven stars, Chaka, heralding the coming of spring. Planting ceremonies are then held around midnight when the seven stars of Chaka are directly overhead.
Teaching about religion in Schools: This issue is again current and we would welcome other Humanist members who would be prepared to help with lobbying Parliament on this issue. Please contact Kent if you are interested. Kent’s e-mail address appears earlier in this newsletter.
Duplicate Newsletters: Do you receive two copies of the Humanist Society of New Zealand Monthly Newsletters, one by conventional mail, and one by e-mail? It costs the Society money to post you a copy and those who have supplied email addresses receive extra news bulletins. If you receive an email copy and do not wish to receive a copy in the post, please let us know.
On the Sin issue: As one humanist says to the other “As a Humanist I don’t believe in Original Sin. Perhaps the problem is Original Stupidity!”
Snow White bought each of her 7 vertically-challenged companions the same number of pies from Bellamy’s Pie Shop. Being scrupulously fair she was careful to buy a number of pies that could not be divided equally between either 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 of her little friends without exactly one pie being left over in each case.
Unfortunately, Sneaky rolled up unannounced and found it all too possible to share them out between 1 without any being left over – he scoffed them all.
When the paramedics arrived the first thing they asked was what was the minimum number of pies the recumbent form might have eaten. Well, there is an answer, can you work it out?
From New Humanist January February 2008
In the late fourth century, political expediency led a ruthless Roman emperor to shut down debate within the Christian church. Charles Freeman explains
The Closing of the CHRISTIAN MIND
The Byzantine dynasty, 300-700, Theodosius (left), Roman Consul (golden cloak),
Emperor Haraclius (staff) and Empress Theodora
IN 313, THE ROMAN EMPEROR Constantine, flushed with a military victory against a rival that he attributed to the Christian god, issued an Edict of Toleration in which he promised that “no one whatsoever should be denied freedom to devote himself either to the cult of the Christians or to such religion as he deems best for himself”. It was an important moment. The Romans had been generally tolerant of religious sects but Christians had enraged many by their denigration of traditional gods and this had led to persecution. Now they were brought under the patronage of the state. It was an astonishing turnaround and the church flourished.
Over the next 60 years, the principle of toleration was largely honoured and given sophisticated backing. In 364 a pagan court orator, Themistius, argued before a Christian emperor, Jovian, that it was essential to maintain freedom of religion and speech. “A king” he declared “cannot control his subjects in everything, there are some matters which have escaped compulsion, for example the whole question of virtue and, above all, reverence for the divine.” God had given all “a disposition towards piety … but lets the manner of worship depend on individual inclination.” The health of a society depended on free debate. There was no one road to truth and, he concluded, God actually enjoys being worshipped in a diversity of ways.
The benefits of free debate can be seen in the passionate discussions that Christians had in the fourth century over the nature of the Godhead. The crucial question was whether Jesus had always been ‘one in substance” with the Father, in the formula the bishops had agreed at a council called by Constantine at Nicaea in 325, or was a later creation and thus subordinate to him, as had been traditionally believed by earlier Christians. For anyone with training in traditional Greek philosophy it must have been obvious that here was an issue that could never be resolved. Many bishops recognised this. As one group of them observed in 357 the issue “is beyond man’s knowledge nor can anyone declare the birth of the Son … for it is clear that only the Father knows how he begot the Son and his Son how he was begotten by the Father.” This did nothing to deter intense argument. Both sides had impressive contributors, many of whom were well versed in Greek philosophy, and there was a staggering array of philosophical concepts involved, including the meanings in this rarified context of “existence”, “identical”, “substance”, “begetting”, “nature” and “mind”. Today a great deal of theology seems to be concerned with finding better arguments for what is already defined as orthodoxy. In the heady days of the mid-fourth century there was as yet no orthodoxy and the quality of debate was much less restrained as a result.
Theodosius dramatically broke with the policy of toleration and insisted on a single religious formula
IT WAS POLITICAL developments that brought all this to an end. In 378 the Roman legions had suffered a devastating defeat by Gothic forces at Adrianople in the Balkans. The emperor Valens died leading his troops. In the ensuing panic the remaining emperor, Gratian, appointed a tough Spanish soldier, Theodosius, as emperor over the Greek-speaking eastern half of the empire. Theodosius was desperate to restore order before the empire fragmented under the pressure of the “barbarians”. One way of doing this, he believed, was to strengthen the empire under a single religious formula. A supporter of the Nicene formula himself, Theodosius dramatically broke with the policy of toleration by announcing that henceforth only Nicene bishops could have churches within cities, and that other Christians, now dubbed “demented and insane heretics”, would have to give up their churches and be subject both to imperial and divine vengeance. When he entered his capital, Constantinople, for the first time in 380, Theodosius enforced his policy and the “subordinationist” bishop of the city was immediately dismissed.
To give some credibility to his actions, Theodosius summoned a council of bishops who were already committed to his own faith to Constantinople to endorse it. The council was a shambles. The first presiding bishop, Meletius of Antioch, died. The second, the new bishop of Constantinople, the intellectual Gregory of Nazianzus, proved hopelessly inadequate and was soon forced to resign. Recourse had to be made to a respected pagan senator Nectarius, who was quickly baptized so that he could preside and restore order. Although the Council apparently passed a new Nicene creed, it proved impossible to publish it in the hostile capital and the first historical reference to it comes only some seventy years later.
Soon after 381 the emperor began enforcing new laws against dissidents. The Manicheans, followers of the Persian prophet Mani, were the first to be banned. There followed a list of Christian heresies that expanded inexorably after no sustainable dividing lines between acceptable and unacceptable religious belief could be established. One law of 428 listed twenty specific heresies. When a new theological issue, the problem of relating Jesus’s humanity to his divinity, arose in the fifth century, there were bitter and intractable debates when the borders between orthodox and heretical proved impossible to define. Again a single formula, the Chalcedonian (which accepted that Christ had two natures, human and divine), was imposed by the emperors with a fresh array of legislation against newly defined heretics.
ONCE THE PRINCIPLE that the state should control religious belief had been established, the laws extended far beyond Christianity. Some of Theodosius’s more fanatical officials instigated the burning down of pagan shrines and in the 3905 all forms of pagan belief were condemned. The Olympic Games, a festival in honour of Zeus, were held for the last time in 393. When Theodosius, under pressure from Ambrose, the formidable bishop of Milan, condoned the burning down of a synagogue by a Christian mob, the exclusion of Jews from all official posts followed.
Few Christians realise that their freedom to discuss
their religion was destroyed by a Roman emperor
The only precedent for the breadth of the laws against religious belief comes from the 14th century BC, when the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten decreed that the sun god Aten should be the only deity. His campaign collapsed at his death, but Theodosius’s endured. When the empire fell in the west, the popes announced that the Nicene Trinity was an article of faith endorsed by the Council of Constantinople. This rewriting saw the crucial role of Theodosius suppressed. In works on church history today, the Nicene solution is said to be the only theologically coherent solution to the problem and the subordinationist view, which has far more scriptural support than the Nicene, remains derided. Few Christians ever realise that their freedom to discuss their own religion was, in effect, destroyed by a Roman emperor.
If Theodosius had maintained his predecessors’ policy of toleration, the debate would surely have fizzled out as one beyond resolution, as the wise bishops of 357 recognized. The history of Europe would have been very different if Themistius’s formula that God enjoys being worshipped in a diversity of ways had passed into the western tradition after the fall of the empire. The year AD 381 thus deserves to be seen as one of the defining moments in the history of European thought, and the history of Christianity should be rewritten to acknowledge it.
AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State by Charles Freeman is published in February by Pimlico
This article has been republished from New Humanist JANUARY FEBRUARY 2008
Answer to Humanist Quiz
There was a flood of answers to the quiz In New Humanist January February 2008, which asked how many pies the thieving dwarf Sneaky had eaten after half-inching them from Snow White. Many were way off the mark, but a handful did come up with the correct answer of 301. Allow quiz master Chris Maslanka to explain: “The smallest number divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 is the smallest number divisible by 5, 3 and 4, namely 60. So any multiple of 60 with an extra pie thrown in will leave a remainder of one pie when you divide it by any of the numbers from 2-6 inclusive. So we need to find a multiple of 60 which when you add 1 to it will be divisible without remainder by 7. The first of these is 300 + 1 = 301 pies.”
Congratulations to Jack Koumi, David MacLauchlan and Ben Evans – copies of Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch are on their way to you.
From New Humanist March April 2008