Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

Taxation, theft and violence

July 15th, 2017

There is a very commonly used argument among conservative (with a small “c”) commentators that, when you transfer the implementation of social gospel principles to government, this is government taking from individuals what is theirs under the threat of force; many such commentators go on to describe this as “theft” or even “armed robbery”. I made an argument against this view on a number of grounds recently. It is, however, a powerful point, as I think there is little argument against the concept that Christians should be non-violent – aside practicality, which I would argue shouldn’t sway us from the general principle, just remind us that we still have to live in a “fallen” world.

Thinking further, however, the very idea that money “belongs to” us rests on the threat of force by government (if not by us – absent government, all we would have is force or persuasion, and persuasion rarely works against robbers) – if someone takes from me the notes and coins in my pocket, my recourse is to the criminal law, which considers that theft – and the criminal law is backed by force. If my bank refuses to pay when I issue a cheque or use my debit card, I need to rely on the civil courts to force them to abide by their contract – and again, that is ultimately backed by force (as at least one possible end-result of suing the bank would be for bailiffs acting on my behalf forcibly to appropriate some of the bank’s property).  Of course, the “value” of money is very arguably a fiction in the first place – when I “spend money” I am exchanging for actual goods or services something which has no intrinsic value of its own, any “value” of which rests on other people’s belief that it is exchangeable for other goods or services. One might say that this was a religion, being a belief-based system…

Those who propose this “taxation is theft” concept are pretty much universally free marketeers; they consider that bargains made between individuals (assuming a “level playing field” are a guarantee of prices being fair and reasonable. But such bargains are again contracts, and contracts can be broken (I hand over my goods and you refuse to pay…) with the ultimate sanction being force.

There’s an interesting (if over-long and over-provided with debating points rather than substantive argument) discussion online between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux, the fundamental issue of which is what Joseph calls “structural violence”. If you take something more like Joseph’s view, which I agree with, it is a part of the structure of a competitive economy which functions in a culture of scarcity that violence will be the result. (Incidentally, the link I give is from Joseph’s You Tube and describes it as a victory for Joseph; I have little doubt that if there’s a link from Molyneux, that would describe it as a victory for Molyneux. I doubt partisans of either would be convinced to change their views…)

Each of them has a favorite illustration, which I think is significant. Joseph’s is of the failure of a company he used to be employed by, and of the misery caused to employees who could not recover their wages; homelessness was one result. Molyneux’s answer to that was, firstly, to concentrate on the employee who was forced by his visa requirements (characterised as a government interference with the free market) to continue working although not being paid, and secondly to point to the existence of a corporation and bankruptcy laws (characterised as a government interference with the free market) as protecting the employer (in the last resort) from having to pay the wages. Other employees were, of course, constrained in the same way by the absence of jobs to go to (and the fear of resulting homelessness and starvation) and, absent government, would have been reduced to threats to the individual or individuals who owned the company to recover anything. I might add that, absent government restrictions on immigration, even people in Molyneaux and Joseph’s privileged position of being versatile, able and intelligent people able to obtain alternative jobs easily might not be enough – there are doubtless very many people in (for instance) India who would be very glad to do the same work for far less remuneration…

His third answer was to suggest that the company was clearly one which deserved to fail, and that Joseph was thereby liberated to pursue something which he did better. I pretty much equate this argument to that of Conservatives in this country who consider that cutting benefits to the unemployed “helps them to find work” by incentivising them – and that I equate to an suggestion that if you have excess food and your neighbour is starving, you are helping him magic food from nothing by refusing to share your own food.

Mostly, there are not jobs to go to in either of our countries unless you are very versatile, able and intelligent – and even then there may be nothing suitable, and the vast majority of people, as I learn from survey results, are only two or three pay checks from starvation and homelessness.

Molyneux’ preferred illustration was of his daughter selling lemonade at the side of the road; if, he suggested, she was not providing something which passers by wanted, or was not making a purchase as attractive as possible, she would not sell lemonade and would then be free to pursue some other avenue. This, of course, is an absolutely idealised example of a free market transaction, one in which daughter does not actually need to sell lemonade if she is to eat or be housed that day, and in which the passer-by almost certainly has absolutely no need of a drink of lemonade. Sadly, Joseph did not capitalise on the fact that this transaction was nothing like most transactions which occur.

But, of course, Molyneux would probably say that almost every transaction which we undertake is in some way distorted by the presence of government – and he would be right in saying that. His assumption is, however, that the influence of government is always negative rather than positive, and that is something which I absolutely do not agree with. Indeed, his absolutely free market system depends itself on government enforcing contracts…

Back to practicality, which I wish we could dispense with. There is going to be a need for the threat of force whatever system we adopt. Even the Acts church which we look to as a possible ideal had its own threat of force in the story of Ananias and Saphira, granted that was supernatural force. More recently, there have been denominations which have been very largely non-violent – the Quakers or the more modern Anabaptist traditions, for instance. They, however, have generally practiced shunning – an effective expulsion from their ranks of those who do not conform to expected standards – and that could colourably be regarded as a kind of passive violence, besides which it goes against the massively inclusive message of Jesus; tax collectors and sinners are your neighbours and you should love them, not shun them.

With some reservation, therefore, I reject the libertarian objection that taxation involves violence in favour of the absolute injunction to love your neighbour as yourself – and, as a community, taxation is the primary way in which we provide necessary care for our neighbours.

Taxation in order to pay for foreign wars, however, is another story!

 

 

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Save the Cheerleader?

February 9th, 2017

I have been wondering about going offline and avoiding all news, such is my current feeling that the world is “going to hell in a handcart” as my grandmother would have put it. Brexit here and Trump in the States makes me feel that everything is falling apart – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” as Eliot put it. In truth, though, I merely feel it’s doing that a lot faster than was previously the case; regular readers will know that I see neoliberal financialised capitalism as pervasive, becoming stronger (at least until it crashes on all of us) and as being “the System of Satan”. At least one facebook friend welcomes Brexit and Trump, possibly out of a Dada-esque liking of absurdity, possibly out of a feeling that only in the flames of the old can anything new be born. And I find it difficult to see anything I could do about it…

I think a significant factor in both the Brexit vote and the Trump win has been a large pool of people who have similarly been feeling that things have either been getting steadily worse or at least not getting better for them over the last decade or so. I can understand people thinking that Obama talked a good line, but that the average person didn’t see much (if any) improvement during his presidency, and similarly here a lot of people thought that Blair talked a good line, but things didn’t improve much for them (and the coalition and then the Conservative win just put the icing on that cake for them). With a young friend of mine, they then voted Brexit because “I want to see the world burn” – and I think the same may be true for a significant number of Trump voters. Enough desperation, and you’re ready to unleash destruction without having a clear plan to replace anything; to clutch at straws, or vote for men of straw.

I am frankly afraid of “tear it down, something will come up and it’s got to be better” attitudes – those have fuelled a lot of revolutions, and whether the end result has been positive or negative on balance, the common factor tends to be a lot of suffering. What to do in the meantime, though? How can I, not in a position of great power of influence and without the funds to buy even a very low ranking politican, have influence in a positive way?

For those with health, energy and youth on their side, I strongly suggest involvement in the political process – if you don’t like what politics is producing, do something to change that. It’s by no means too early to start campaigning for 2020; building up a strong organisation and widespread support can easily take three or four years.

In any event, though, I suggest doing the small right things. Richard Beck wrote about the “little way” a while ago, while I’ve meditated on the last few verses of Matthew 25 (you help the disadvantaged or marginalised, you help Jesus…). What springs to mind today, however, is that we people feel powerless to save the world, and it looks as if it might need saving. I remembered the repeated message in the first series of “Heroes”, which was “Save the cheerleader, save the world”.

Now, OK, in that case, saving the cheerleader did save the world, as the cheerleader saved the world. But there’s another very similar line in the Jewish Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”. (Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9). This exemplifies a principle in Judaism which is more strongly expressed there than any other tradition, namely that any general thing has to have particular expression – a generalised compassion, for instance, is considered worthless unless you are compassionate in a practical way to a particular person. Perhaps this echoes the particularity of Judaism itself; Israel is God’s chosen people, which prompted William Norman Ewer to write “How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews”, exciting people to claim this was antisemitic and write rejoinders such as Ogden Nash’s “But not so odd / as those who choose / a Jewish God / but spurn the Jews”.

Actually, though, I think it was probably meant in a kindly spirit. Many Rabbis have, in the past, expressed some surprise that Israel was chosen, and some have just rested on that rather than tried to find hidden reasons. There had to be a particular expression in order for the general compassion and care of God to be demonstrated (just as I would say there had to be a particular incarnation of God in Jesus in order for the original incarnation in existence as a whole to be demonstrated, though that may go too far for the non-panentheist).

When the opportunity arises, save someone. If enough of us do that, the world will get saved.

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On the other side of the “end times”…

November 30th, 2016

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

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Musing…

October 26th, 2016

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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Prax, dox, path, pist and agap.

September 17th, 2016

Roger Wolsey, in his book “Kissing Fish”, identifies several hallmarks of Progressive Christianity, one of which is orthopraxy (right actions) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). I’ve been rather inclined toward this view – after all, it is a truism that in order to know what someone believes, one should not look at what they say but at what they do. James writes “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, and Jesus perhaps goes further: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” and ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Evangelicals, however, have a tendency to look at this emphasis and worry that it is preaching “works righteousness”; Paul writes ” For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (and elsewhere gives a hostage to fortune to those who say that good deeds absent faith are sins) and Catholics may worry about Pelagianism. Some might recall Isaiah 64:6, where good deeds are called “dirty rags”.

On the other hand, orthodoxy as normally interpreted means merely mental assent. You are agreeing to a set of faith statements, such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds, the Westminster Confession or the contents of the Catholic Catechism. My own church, the Anglican, uses the first two interchangeably, but actually also has as standard doctrine (thus “orthodoxy”) the Athanasian creed.

The relevant section of Catechism reads:- “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;  Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.  For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.  The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.  The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.  The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.  As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.  So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.  And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.  So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.  And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.  So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.  For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.  The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.  The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.  So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.  And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.  But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.  He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

I think this illustrates one of my problems with orthodoxy as a standard. That IS orthodoxy for my denomination, Catholics and quite a few other denominations (and is the root definition of trinity for all trinitarian denominations, which is the vast bulk of them). And virtually no-one among the laity really understands it, and, in my experience, precious few clergy – and that is assuming for a moment that it is, in fact, rationally understandable, given the statement by the Cappadocian Fathers that it is not supposed to be understood by human reason but is a holy mystery to be accepted by faith.

The thing is, when Paul talks of saving faith, I really don’t think he is talking of intellectual acceptance of some forms of wording which are at the least difficult (and at the most impossible) to understand – and yes, I know that Origen wrote “I believe because it is absurd” (in “Contra Celsum”). Assuming for a moment that the popular recent readings of Paul as properly referring not to “faith in” Christ but to “the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ” are not our preferred interpretation, the fact that “faithfulness” is seen as a viable alternative to “faith” may give a clue. “Faithfulness” is more a disposition than an intellectual exercise, and it really betokens love for and trust in someone (which perforce produces action). This is, of course, a viable meaning of “faith in” as well. I can have faith in my wife, without remotely needing to understand her, far less to accept a number of propositions about her (which is possibly why I am still happily married after 37 years).

Out of similar concerns, people have started talking about “orthopathy”, meaning right passions, emotions and empathies. The link I give is to an evangelical commentator, who is still keen to preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy as well, feeling however that orthopathy has been neglected. I use it in part because it gives an excellent exposition of the term and in part because I don’t think it goes far enough – to my mind, while orthopathy is demanded by Paul and others, orthodoxy, in the form of rigidly correct intellectual assent, isn’t. However, orthopathy will automatically produce orthopraxy. I struggle to see evidence that orthodoxy does anything of the sort – if anything, the more orthodox someone is, the less they seem to me to embody the “fruits of the spirit”, or at least peace, forbearance, kindness and gentleness, which constitute for me (and, I think, for most Progressive Christians) a sizeable slice of the orthopraxy we are looking for.

Unfortunately, there is an earlier meaning for “orthopathy”, which usually denotes fringe medicine. If we were to use the original Greek “pistis” of Paul’s statements about faith as our root (instead of doxia or praxia), we would get something like “orthopisty”, which does not have a good ring in English. Perhaps “orthoagapy”, from “agape”, meaning love, used by Paul in 1 Cor. 13? I think that would convey right passion, emotion and empathy.

And what would the God who is equated to love by many theologians wish of us but love?

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Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.

 

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Arguing with God

August 30th, 2016

Here’s another address from the excellent Rabbi Brad Artson, which I strongly recommend.

In a recent discussion, someone said that they really liked the way Judaism grapples with its texts – and I completely share that feeling. R. Artson talks at one point about what he is saying not being dismissible as a modern liberal interpretation – because it’s an ancient liberal interpretation… would that Christianity preserved its arguments and counter-arguments between scholars in their entirety, rather than having to have one become “orthodox”.

Also, it’s reinforced for me by R. Artson’s words that Rabbinic students need to learn their scriptures really thoroughly – and then apply them in the spirit of the rabbinic tradition, which always argues and always develops. Sadly, although some Christians do know their scripture this well, those who do seem always to be incredibly conservative in their outlook, and are therefore pretty much immune to any process of argument, counter-argument and owning the scriptures (through their interpretations) as a co-production with the original authors and with God.

I think I need to go away and study a bit more…

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Biblical politics and economics

August 9th, 2016

I think Brad Artson may be my favorite Rabbi (he’s certainly been asked to be “their Rabbi” by more than one non-Jew). Under the guise of biblical advice on which to choose political candidates, he has outlined a biblically based political programme – which is pretty much exactly as I’ve been arguing for some time (although Rabbi Artson doesn’t go so far as to call free market capitalism as we see it operate “the System of Satan”…)

He does have one caveat in the article – he states that he is no expert on the Christian scriptures, but that from everything he’s heard about Jesus, Jesus would not disagree with any of what he’s written. Now my arguments have largely been based on the sayings of Jesus – and they end up in the same place.

This may demonstrate that Jesus was solidly in the Jewish tradition (I think it does), or that our dominant neoliberal social and economic policy is contrary to God’s will for the world (I think it is). Or, of course, both…

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A God of psychotic unconcern?

August 6th, 2016

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-

94. THE SAVED AND THE DAMNED

1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

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3D, 4D and Theology

June 21st, 2016

Peter Enns blogged recently about the task of Biblical Scholars, which he identifies as trying to find the best narrative which explains all of the evidence (in this case the narratives of the Bible), and I warmed to that – after all, this is what I do as a scientist (originally a Physics degree, now doing some occasional part time research in Chemistry) and is part of what I did as a lawyer when doing court work, particularly in criminal defence. He particularly likened his work to putting together a jigsaw, where perhaps 200 or so pieces are there out of a 1000 piece jigsaw, with some pieces which do not obviously seem to go together.

The thought which immediately sprang to mind was “But what if there are pieces from more than one jigsaw there?” That is something which has in fact happened to me a number of times, usually when there are just a few pieces which have strayed from another puzzle into this one, but occasionally when two or more puzzles have become completely mixed.

What, say, if the pieces were of a three-dimensional jigsaw, but we were interpreting them as only pieces of a two dimensional puzzle? What if they were indeed two dimensional representations of the same thing, but from a number of completely different directions?

Again, what if they were an attempt to combine several images into one, which would not make much sense as a two dimensional graphic unless you realised what was being attempted, as in Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase”, which looks to combine several viewpoints in space and in time.

Has this, I wondered, happened with the Bible? Of course, the standard conservative hermaneutic demands that the whole text, Old and New testaments, is all divinely inspired and is telling a single consistent story. Though most will say that they don’t hold to a theory of divine dictation, that is effectively what they end up with. This looks to me very much like deciding from the beginning that there is only one picture here. John Wesley, for instance, said that we must not “fragmentise” our study of scripture. “When a verse seems contrary to the overarching biblical message, we must look at the verse in question macrocosmically rather than microcosmically”. Was he right?

Slightly less conservative scholars will readily concede that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are composed of a mosaic of texts composed at different times by different people with different agendas and which therefore reveal significantly different viewpoints. The documentary hypothesis, for instance, sees four major strains of thinking, and indeed several different conceptions of God. However, most scholars take the view that, underlying this, there is actually only one God at work throughout this collection of texts. Where there are different concepts of God (the Jahvist and Elohist traditions, for instance) they are just different views of one YHVH/Elohim deity.

There are, of course, a lot of themes in the Hebrew Scriptures. The dominant one is probably the redemption of Israel from slavery and return to the promised land, but there is also a strong narrative of prophetic challenge to kingly authority, God -v- mundane rulers, an increasing insistence on monotheism to the exclusion of “other gods” (OK, conservatives will try to tell me that the scriptures are monotheistic from the start, but that is not borne out by the text), and there’s a narrative of sin (usually collective sin) and how to make ones self right with God again. There are others, but these are probably the principal ones.

On to the New Testament, and the vast majority of scholars (and particularly those who are primarily theologians rather than biblical historians) are looking for a single narrative of the purpose of Jesus; many if not most will then refer this back to the Hebrew Scriptures and principally use them as a foundation for their NT work, seeing the themes of the NT prefigured in them. Most will acknowledge that the Fourth Gospel has a viewpoint radically different from the three synoptic gospels and that Paul and the author of James have significantly different stresses, but there is still a strong theological urge to find the same message in each strand, an underlying theory of what it was (or is) that Jesus did for us.

But what if there is more than one thing which Jesus did, more than one way in which he was significant which is of importance, and those things are not obviously connected except in the person of Jesus?

Some while ago I wrote a post titled “God: WTF?”, in which I suggested that the only appropriate response to peak mystical experience was something like “WTF?”; it is just too overwhelming and multi-faceted to make it susceptible to description (and the best attempts are wildly poetic rather than coldly analytic). The more I read of the New Testament writers, the more I think that they were struggling with the question “Jesus: WTF?”. At the most basic level, they knew he had lived, taught, healed, gathered a following, died and had then become alive again to some of his followers in some sense, and they knew that he was important. That is to say “IMPORTANT!”. Some of them experienced him as being present to them in, so far as I can understand it, much the same way as that in which I think of God as being present to me in peak mystical events – Paul and John, at least, are identified by F.C. Happold as “Christ-mystics”, and I agree; quite some number started to include him as a figure of worship.

It was not, however, sufficient to say “come and follow Jesus; this is what he said we should do”; they had to make sense of what they experienced about him. Starting with Paul, all the NT writers wrote using the vocabulary of talking about God which they had available, which was mostly the Hebrew Scriptures – and they mined every area of those in which they thought they could find an analogy to Jesus or a new way of considering his importance.

He needed to be like Moses, so he was saving his followers from some form of slavery, variously the Devil, or Sin, or the Romans. He needed to be like Elijah, so he was prophetic and worked miracles (a very similar set of miracles). He had died voluntarily at the hands of the occupying power, faithful to the last, like the Maccabean martyrs, so his death was an atonement, and was a substitution (the Maccabean martyrs arguably saved many others from death by their actions, and in dying they could be thought to suffer the death or failure to remain faithful – which in Judaism is often regarded as much the same thing – which may otherwise have come upon many Israelites).

He needed to be kingly, as being the Messiah, so naturally acquired titles similar to those of Caesar (for instance, Son of God), and he needed to be more universal than even Caesar, so gentiles and Jews both had to be included. He also needed to be priestly, so the author of Hebrews reinterpreted him as ascending to make an ultimate sacrifice (of himself) in the imagined heavenly Temple. As a sacrifice, he needed to recall the passover, so he was the passover lamb, but he also needed to recall the Feast of Atonement, so he was the Yom Kippur goat – or, actually, he was both of the Yom Kippur goats, the one which was ritually sacrificed and the one which bears all the sins of the people and is driven out of the assembly.

Out of all these different perspectives, theologians starting with Paul have tried to construct a coherent single message. As one might have predicted of an attempt (inter alia) to make Jesus simultaneously into one lamb and two goats, sacrificed for two different reasons on two different occasions (and surviving in the case of one goat), the result either forces pieces of the picture into a scheme they don’t fit into, or ends up as initially confusing as Duchamp’s nude, or both.

And yet, and yet… look at the statement I highlighted in yellow above. I am clearly there putting forward a theory of Jesus, even though it’s a severely stripped down one (there are a lot of pieces I have left out…). We are, I think, inevitably going to do this, and the most I can ultimately ask is that we exercise a little humility and accept that there may be other ways of fitting the pieces together, other pictures which can be reached.

Back to the Hebrew Scriptures and the concept of God. The Hebrew Scriptures conceived of God in a lot of ways, and strict monotheism wasn’t the start point. There’s strong evidence that YHVH started off as a purely national god of the Israelites (consider all the references to “other gods”) and became a conflation of YHVH and Elohim, YHVH being a god of wrath and war, Elohim being much more of a creator and sustainer. The writers moved on to thinking of God as supreme among other gods (henotheism), and finally to God as the only deity – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”.

They didn’t, however, conceive of God in the same way as the Greek philosophers, for whom God was much more like an abstract principle. Some of this way of thinking crept in to the NT writers, particularly John, whose first chapter (so far as I can see) lifts a huge amount of thinking from Philo of Alexandria’s attempt to synthesise Greek philosophy with the Hebrew Scriptures (look in particular at Philo’s conception of “Logos”, otherwise “Word”). For the Hebrews, God was very much a personal God (and a national one, as Israel were the “chosen people”), for the Greeks the ultimate God was far beyond personality (the philosophers had largely dispensed with the very personal pantheon of Greece a long time previously to Aristotle, to whom I link – note that this kind of thinking looks a lot like the later thinking of Christian theologians).

Are these different concepts actually just different views of the same [   ] (to avoid any label at all)? Well, this is not a dead issue, as witness the suggestions recently that the God of Islam is not the same God as the God of the Bible. Judaism, of course, moved steadily in the direction of categorising other gods as false, and eventually demonic. So, largely, did Christianity, save that in Western Christianity a very large number of saints seem to resemble remarkably local and tribal gods.

In this area, I have taken the view that yes, there is One God (my peak mystical experience does not admit of its source being other than all-encompassing) and that this is the foundation of all mystical experiences in multiple religious traditions, for which insight and argument I am indebted to F.C. Happold. I am therefore committed to there being a single underlying reality, and thus in some way, the different ways in which mystics of varying religious traditions have talked of God must in some way be different images of the same God, however difficult this is to understand.

I gave up the concept of syncretism (trying to meld together a set of different viewpoints) many years ago – the result tended to look too much like Duchamp’s painting, confusing and inadequate at best unless and until you got the trick of looking at it, and not really representing any single viewpoint adequately. I am, however, increasingly coming to the view that Christianity in and of itself is already trying to meld viewpoints which are not so much inconsistent as just looking at things from totally different standpoints (and that Judaism before it was also trying to do that, with slightly fewer viewpoints).

So, to theologians, I suggest that for any problem, no matter how complex, there is a simple, understandable solution.

And it’s wrong.

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