Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

Christianity is not realistic

June 7th, 2016

A few days ago, I saw a post from Benjamin Corey and duly “liked” it on Facebook. It was advocating that we see Jesus as essentially nonviolent, and that we follow his example.

Now, I find that there is pushback. To quote that article, “It’s easy for a privileged person to to think that Jesus was a pacifist. It’s even easier, I would presume, to say that “it’s a central commitment to nonviolent enemy love as a non-negotiable qualification of the Christian identity…””

The author, Andy Gill, goes on to say “Ben’s perspective could be stemming from what’s called a “Eurocentric Hermeneutic.” He’s, seemingly, picking and choosing which scriptures stand out the most while simultaneously using an understanding and interpretation of the text (i.e. scripture) that best suits his opinion (to be fair, we all do this to a large extent).”, and then quotes Revelation and various Old Testament passages to indicate that violence is indeed scripturally sanctioned and approved in some cases.

I think I can dispose of the Old Testament quotations rather easily by pointing out that Jesus redefined what we should be doing in Matthew 5:21-48 (and particularly vv. 21-24, 38-41 and 43-46). I really don’t think that leaves us any wriggle room in which to take violent action, or indeed to harbour violent thoughts. Prior to the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps there was room for violent action, but Jesus removed it there.

In respect of Revelation, the imagery is indeed violent (but then, Paul makes use of military imagery in Ephesians when he is talking about spiritual warfare, and this definitely does not involve real swords and armour), but I note “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations.” If there is violence there, it is of language, not physical; just like Paul, the author is using a figure of physical combat to indicate spiritual struggle.

Gill also says “I want to make it clear and known that although I’m not against the idea of pacifism we must embrace a Christian realism as opposed to a progressive idealism.”.

I really don’t think that “Christian” and “realism” can be linked this way. Yes, I accept that complete nonviolence is somewhere between slightly daft and batshit crazy, and probably the more so for the nation as opposed to the individual. Jesus’ economic prescription, to sell all you have and give it to the poor, is no less loopy as a concept. These are not realistic instructions, they are idealistic. Paul also says that the gospel is “a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks”. And, indeed, it seems from the tenor of his article that Gill finds nonviolence both scandalous and foolish.

But it is the gospel.

Now look, I am definitely a realist; I’m also a pragmatist, but I don’t try to suggest that Christianity should be pragmatic. I also haven’t given away all my possessions, nor do I think that it is practical for not merely myself but my whole society to be nonviolent – but in taking that attitude, I am being a not-very-good Christian, I am not being a “realist Christian” or a “Pragmatic Christian”. I hope that someday I might be able to get my realist, pragmatist side (SR Chris, or the Scientific Rationalist side of me) to take the leap and actually follow Jesus wholeheartedly, but there is a distinct element of Augustine’s “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet” about that.

It does, at least, give me something to confess every Sunday.

No, Christianity is not realistic. But as Maya Angelou said “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I go, ‘Already?'””. We are, in trying to be Christian, aiming at a target which is unattainable, to be “perfect, as our father in Heaven is perfect”. We should not dilute that by thinking that half measures can ever be sufficient.

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The incomprehensibility of Trinity

May 31st, 2016

Allan Bevere has recently written a number of posts in the lead up to Trinity Sunday, one of which I feel the need to focus on. Allan has often been a valued colleague on Global Christian Perspectives (currently undergoing a hiatus while we rethink the format), and I generally find myself agreeing with much of what he says, which always has a strong devotional and scriptural basis. Not all, however!

Here, based on his longer appraisal of a work by Nicholas Lash he talks about Christian Theism, and distinguishes it from Trinitarianism. The first thing I note is that he is talking about Theism as a synonym for what we commonly call Deism these days (with authority from Voltaire who, it seems, coined the usage he talks about). However, I find that it was rather earlier used by Ralph Cudworth, whose definition was “strictly and properly called Theists, who affirm, that a perfectly conscious understanding being, or mind, existing of itself from eternity, was the cause of all other things” (from Wikipedia). Cudworth’s usage is, I think, somewhat closer to the way the term is used these days, which includes Monotheism, Polytheism, Pantheism, Panentheism and Deism (among others) as specific instances of the broader term “Theism”, though modern usage does not include the requirement that God be “first cause”.

His first point is this:- “Theism starts with the assumption that there is a “central core” of beliefs about God that makes Christians, Jews and Muslims all theists. The differing beliefs about God are further additions to one’s theistic faith. These further beliefs are where Christians, Jews and Muslims no longer agree. Lash maintains, however, that any belief about God cannot be divided into any kind of “central core” without perverting fundamental Christian, Jewish and Muslim belief about God. Thus a theistic account of God is unacceptable.”

I immediately disagree with this statement. Leaving aside Muslims (who believe in a revelation subsequent to the New Testament), it cannot be that the God of Christianity is different from the God of Judaism; that would be to say that the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures (without which the New Testament is arguably unintelligible and definitely shorn of most of its content) are irrelevant and, indeed, to suggest that they refer to a God different from the Christian God. That is the position of Marcion and of the Gnostics, both of whom were anathematised as heretics.

Indeed, the Apostles’ creed which Lash makes the subject of his book starts “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (the common alternative, the Nicene creed, starts similarly but states “I believe in one God…”). Everything after that is quite clearly “a further addition to ones theistic faith”. Jews and Muslims both would, I think, find no problem in either formulation up to that point. Thus, I would suggest, the most one could say is that the theistic account of God is inadequate.

He continues “The God of theism is abstract. Without the doctrine of the Trinity (“as it is employed in defining, determining or shaping Christian life, prayer, action and suffering”) “spirit” is an “empty word.” It becomes an abstraction situated in the’ ‘broad framework of Cartesian contractions.” “. In the longer response, he comments that Theism is the “God of the philosophers” – and indeed, I am inclined to agree that Deism (not Theism – neither Judaism nor Islam would consider themselves Deist religions) is very much the God of the philosophers. He also, however, states “Yet Lash maintains that the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility requires us to confess God as mystery at the outset. “

The suggestion that without a doctrine, “spirit is an empty word” is just ridiculous to me; spirit is experienced, so it cannot be an empty word; it designates a real phenomenon. We might well not fully understand it, but that would be entirely consistent with the incomprehensibility of God. In fact, Trinitarianism is itself a doctrine of the philosophers, or at least of the product of Greek philosophy with the experiential truths that God is to Jesus (and to the ancient Hebrews, and to us) Father, and that Jesus incarnated the Word of God (which was God) and that God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit from the beginning and the necessity to continue to pronounce monotheism in the words of the Shema. “God is one”. Two of those three are common ground between Christianity, Judaism and, in fact, Islam. The sticking point between Christianity and either of the others is that neither sees Jesus as incarnating God.

And, indeed, there is no statement of Trinitarianism in our scripture, merely some passages where an ardent trinitarian can discern all three elements (most notably Matt. 28:19, which does not say that all three are God, let alone prescribe any particular relationships between them). Trinitarianism took some significant time to arrive, and it arrived through early theologians steeped in Greek philosophy trying to make sense of the fact that God was one and yet all three statements in the preceding paragraph were correct. If you adopt the philosophical positions of Platonism or Aristotelianism, you may well want to try to jump through the same hoops as did Theophilus of Antioch (the first to use the term in the late second century), Augustine (who developed the concept considerably) or Acquinas (whose “Summa Theologica” is the basis for subsequent Trinitarianism in Catholicism and Anglicanism). Personally I do not, as I do not adopt either Plato’s nor Aristotle’s concepts of how the world works, and neither Augustine nor Acquinas makes sense to me philosophically.

There are many instances of scripture where what are regarded as “Trinitarian heresies” such as subordinationism (an example from John) are made clear and because the doctrine has ended up being impossible to expound to normal people, principally due to modalism being declared a heresy. If I am asked to subscribe to a doctrine, I really do not want it to contradict scripture, nor do I want it to be functionally useless.

There is, however, one really good thing in Lash’s account, which I have already mentioned – the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. The end point of Trinitarian discussion in the Orthodox Church was the Cappadocian fathers, one of whom suggested that in the end the Trinity was not comprehensible, was a “holy mystery”.

I gently suggest that it would have been perfectly adequate to say “it’s a holy mystery” after stating that the Father is God, Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and without all the philosophical paraphernalia which has tried to clarify the situation and has ended up back in bafflement. We’d still be Trinitarian, but without all the fuss…

And, in passing, I really do not like the suggestion that the other great religions are idolatrous. If we accept that God is incomprehensible to us, we are in no position to say that any of the others is wrong – and that way lies a total failure to love our neighbours as ourselves – yes, and even our enemies.


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Liberty, Law and Paul

May 28th, 2016

Henry Neufeld (aka The Boss when I’m doing editing) has mused recently on the Law and it’s significance for Christians in the course of looking at Luke 17.  I want to go in two directions from there…

The first might well be encapsulated by this graphic. It suggests that because there are a number of constraints on our behaviour (or at least our expected behaviour) we cannot possibly be “free”.

I think this is more or less completely wrong. It’s wrong from a Christian perspective, as faith in Christ (and one might say “freedom in Christ” involves following Jesus to the extent that, as Paul puts it “I no longer live, but Christ in me lives” (Gal. 2:20). We become members of the Church, and Christ is the head of that church, i.e. the maker of decisions. The earliest Christians, before any of our developed doctrines, confessed that “Jesus is Lord” – and in that time, this meant complete submission to the Lord’s will.

It’s wrong from the point of view of al-Islam (the way of submission to the will of God); philosophical Hindus and Buddhists aim at freedom from attachment (i.e. desire) through rules of self-denial, as did Stoics; every religious tradition which comes to mind has or has had a tradition of austere discipline, adding more rules to the conduct of one’s life.

I also think that it is wrong on general experiential principles. Regular readers of my blog will have noticed that some of them include abstract paintings out of a series I produced some years ago. Each of them is based on a very limited palette (selection of colours) and constraints as to the subject matter – and I found more originality and inspiration working within these tight constraints than I did when faced with a blank piece of paper and no constraints on what I drew or what colours I used. Similarly, when I am conducting a scientific experiment, there are huge constraints (in the laws of physics and chemistry) on what the result will be – the delight is in finding out how these laws can be used to produce novel results.

Then again, I spend some of my time doing research chemistry. This involves working out what rules are applying in a certain situation, how they work together and how those rules might be used to produce a result. None of this would work without the presence of a set of rules. I also enjoy board games, and sometimes trying to develop variants of existing games or new games – and those again focus round sets of rules. Without the rules, there is no game, there is no enjoyment (as witness the violent antipathy most game players feel towards cheats…).

The value of sets of rules was brought home to me in a massive way by my experience of many years of severe depression. Eventually, the depression robbed me of any ability to choose an outcome on the basis of an emotion – because all emotions had become foreign territory. The negative ones were, of course, the last to go, and a pervading sense that “everything is wrong” never actually left. I was in theory less constrained in what I did than I would once have been, because all outcomes were emotionally equivalent; yes, one course of action might result in me being injured or dying, or being rightly locked up for damaging other people – but those were just all equal outcomes; I had no way of preferring one. I recall an occasion standing in a Chinese takeaway gazing at the menu and trying without success to envisage what I might like to eat – to the annoyance of the serving staff, because even the most indecisive person usually managed to make a decision inside five minutes, and I must have been there for half an hour. I eventually did a kind of internal coin flipping, and settled on something. Did I actually like it when I got it home? I have no idea.

It’s worth mentioning that I have never been so objective as I was during that period – there were just no emotional biases to affect any decision. I have never been so dispassionate either – though empathy still worked to a small extent (in that I could feel sad for others), mostly the emotions of others, and so their needs and wishes, were equally a closed book. As a result, I treat philosophical advice that I should strive for objectivity, dispassion or freedom from attachment with huge suspicion – I really do not want these things, having seen what it is like to attain them! Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death”, and frankly, death was preferable to that kind of liberty. I avoided it one day at a time…

The thing which kept me from damaging others during that period (and mostly from damaging myself) was that I had sets of rules. There were a broad set derived from the Sermon on the Mount, of course, and some more specific ones incorporated in a Twelve Step programme. I was only too aware that my own thought processes were not normal, and that in particular decisions as to what to do were well-nigh impossible; accepting the authority of a set of rules for conduct was, quite literally, a life-saver (otherwise the “it’s all wrong” would eventually have led to me deciding that nothingness was preferable to constant low level psychological pain). Working out what, according to those rules, was the next right thing to do was manageable.

All in all, therefore, I think that too much focus on rules being a bad thing is in itself a very bad idea indeed. And that brings me to Judaism (which you’ll notice I didn’t mention at the beginning) and the vexed Christian attitude towards the Jewish Law, based on the writings of Paul (largely Romans and Galatians). I wrote a bit about this recently. Judaism absolutely does not consider that the Law, including the massive set of additional rules put together over many centuries by rabbis attempting to clarify possible misunderstandings (and yes, extending the scope of these, but with the objective of “putting a fence around the law” so that you don’t even get uncomfortably close to breaching one of the Laws) is a bad thing – it’s their pride and joy, and their means of displaying their commitment to God.

Kurt Willems has recently launched The Paulcast, which sets out to look at Paul from all sorts of angles; he has recently finished a series on views of Paul (from traditional to New Perspective to Paul Within Judaism). It’s reasonably clear, I think, that my own writing (link in last paragraph) displays that I am squarely in the camp of “Paul within Judaism”, otherwise known as “Radical New Perspective”. But I go slightly further; the Law, to me, was (and perhaps is) a good thing not because it saves (though a set of rules in fact saved me from an earlier death than my family and friends, at least, preferred) but because it establishes a framework in which to live.

Paul may well be right in saying I would not have known sin except through the law”though in conscience I doubt that, unless he too was suffering from severe depression or one of the other mental illnesses which affects emotions (affect), but to suggest that that was the purpose of the Law is to suggest that God was in fact placing a permanent stumbling block before many generations of his chosen people, and that in the guise of something beneficial. I do not think that Paul intended to characterise God as a liar! I will grant that the passage Paul was quoting in the link places God himself in the situation of being a stumbling block, but not the law. Isaiah, however, also says that the Lord is “sanctuary and stone of offense”, so not an unmitigated obstacle for the unwary faithful. Paul also uses the word “stumbling block” in “a stumbling block to the Jews”, but there is is the fact that Christ was crucified which is the stumbling block. Not God, and not the Law.

In fact, as a disposessed nation, always strangers in the lands of other nations for most of their history, it is exactly the Law which has preserved Israel as a nation; the steadfast adherence to a set of rules which not only gave a focus of identity for Jews but also set them apart from those around them is probably the thing which above all else prevented them from being totally assimilated over 2000 years. This is almost an unique history (the only other group I can think of which has similarly preserved identity as permanent aliens is the Roma). Israel is not however by any means the only nation which has held its system of laws to be primary; the Romans did this for some time, although the law became secondary to the emperor cult; England (and subsequently Great Britain) has prided itself on being a nation of law for a very long time, and was very early in determining that even monarchs were subject to law; for a time the concept of Christendom in Europe allowed some latitude to the idea that all the nations were subject to God’s law (although the institution of the papacy rather detracted from that…); in more recent times the USA has given an example of a nation built on a set of laws (the Constitution) which is supreme over any other power, at least in theory.

Laws, in other words, form and enable communities, peoples and nations. Many of them (and sometimes the ones which most obviously produce the character of a nation) are unwritten – there is no law in Britain or Canada requiring politeness, for instance, but it is possibly one of the less broken laws in both countries. Some of them make absolutely no sense, but are still formative – this is how we do things. Judaism might, arguably, have rather a lot of those, but our driving on the left similarly makes no sense in a world where almost every other country drives on the right; suggest that we change, however, and there will be a massive popular outcry! Flanders and Swann used to sing “The Song of Patriotic Prejudice”, in which were the lines “And all the world over, each nation’s the same, they’ve simply no notion of playing the game. They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won. And they practice beforehand, which ruins the fun!” This was a notion of Englishness with which I grew up – and yes, it’s daft from most standpoints, but it was a part of national identity (which, I think, Thatcher killed off). You played by the rules, you were ideally good at things without having to try too hard (or at least showing that you were trying hard), and you were self-deprecating. There are probably many, many more things which are rules in my society whether written or merely understood which are similarly illogical and unnecessary, but I am too deeply immersed in my society to see which they are…

I am not, of course, saying that liberty is not a valid cry – in many situations, there is not enough liberty. Similarly, however, in many situations there is not enough law. In the beginning, the earth was formless and void (chaotic), and God gave order; without that order, there would have been only chaos. Later in scripture, Jesus said “my yoke is easy and my burden light”, referring to the rules of behaviour he expected – and those probably included most of the Law.

Except for those who consider that “everything was accomplished” by his death and resurrection, of course, a view which I do not consider warranted – few of those who argue this would, for instance, say that the Ten Commandments had been superseded, and very many argue for a strict interpretation of, say, Leviticus 18:22, which I consider inapplicable for the world as it now is. But there’s the thing – I argue for the liberty to disregard a strict interpretation of this passage (not that it’s a liberty I need myself) not on the basis that it was a bad law at the time, but on the basis that Jesus’ rules of behaviour, which supplement those of the Law, demand that I not judge my neighbour, and that takes precedence for me.

That brings me to my other point. I am saying, in effect, that where there is a possible conflict between Jesus and Paul, I choose Jesus. With the utmost respect to more conservative Christian friends, I think you are inclined to base your theologies on Paul rather than on Jesus. You also base them on the Fourth Gospel rather than on the synoptic gospels, but that is not my immediate point. As Christians, we consider that Jesus was the son of God, the messiah, and God incarnate – we do not say any of these things of Paul. Paul was many things, including a massively successful evangelist, a pastor, preacher and probably the first Christian theologian, and he deserves to be taken extremely seriously by Christians as a result – let’s face it, the probability is that without Paul, the followers of Jesus would have remained a Jewish sect.

But he was not God, and we should not treat his words as having divine authority without significant scepticism.

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Satan, yeast and seeds

May 13th, 2016

Professor Kathryn Tanner has, at the point I write this, just finished her series of Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh University. They are well worth a listen; I don’t think I have heard a better skewering of market capitalism as it functions in the 21st century, under the neo-liberal philosophy which seems to have captured the thinking of politicians throughout the West (and a fair proportion of the East).

She does, of course, come to the conclusion that market capitalism (particularly finance-led market capitalism) is profoundly contrary to Christian principles. It encourages greed where Jesus commands care for the disadvantaged. It encourages competition where Jesus commands care for community. It grinds down workers where Paul counsels that labourers are worthy of their hire and should not be short-changed. It considers people as units of production and units of consumption where Jesus sees each as being unique creations of our Heavenly Father, with supreme worth (more valuable than a sparrow or a lily, indeed).

It also focuses on short term financial gain to the exclusion of building a lasting community, and there there might be a temptation to remember Jesus counselling that we give no thought for tomorrow and think that he approved a short term viewpoint. However, he also placed this in terms of dependence on God for our basic sustenance (daily bread) and, in looking forward to the Kingdom of God on earth, assumes, in my view, that that Kingdom will be structured to give everyone their basic sustenance, not to look for a “fast buck”. A fast buck is, of course, an idol, and we cannot serve God and Mammon, as I expanded upon recently (see link below).

Prof. Tanner does not, it seems to me, take quite the same view I do of the requirements of the Christian life; she works within the paradigm of the “salvation history” which I do not really subscribe to. However, I have recently finished Richard Beck’s new book “Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted” which among other things works from the framework set up by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink which has made the real existence of forces of evil make sense to me again.

This has enabled me to identify the finance-led market capitalism of today as “the System of Satan”. Merely calling it idolatry is not sufficient for me, given the all-encompassing and subtle power of this system and the fact that most of us see no real alternative, in particular our politicians.

I think Prof. Tanner could do with an element of this more powerful way of condemning the system; while at the point of writing I have not yet heard her final (and summing up) lecture, so far she has merely set out in a factual and resigned way the undesirable features of the system, and commented that there is no longer any competing structure available for us to prefer, communism being widely considered to have failed (and inasmuch as it requires a command economy directed by a few people in power, this is true). Marx, it seems, was a brilliant diagnostician of the weaknesses of capitalism, but his prescription was a failure…

She has not so far considered any of the anarchist thinking which might (as long as it is not anarcho-capitalism) provide another way; her solution seems to be to work within the system but not to subscribe to it’s encompassing ethos, not to be drawn into belief in it, accepting that we live in a fallen world.

I do not think this is enough, though it is a start. We should certainly adopt small measures of protest against the way the system works, but we should also at least hope for a future in which the Kingdom, and it’s non-capitalist economics, grows out of that – as Jesus suggested, like a leaven or a mustard seed. Anything we can do to hasten the leavening or the growth of the seed should be tried.

And maybe, just maybe, we will see the start of the Kingdom coming in glory…

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Judaism, salvation history

April 20th, 2016

I’ve recently listened to one of the Homebrewed Christianity podcasts in which Tripp Fuller interviews Brad Artson, who is a Conservative Rabbi and a Process Theologian. There are a lot of really good takeaways in this podcast to think of, but perhaps the most important one is this: it is horribly easy for a Christian theologian to step on Jewish toes. We really need to work on dinning into our subconscious the fact that, from the point of view of Jewish history, the Pharisees (who get a very bad treatment in all of the gospels) are the lineal predecessors of the rabbis, and modern Judaism is rabbinic Judaism.

[As an aside, I do not mean that all the interpretations of modern-day Judaism are those which would have held sway in the first century when the earliest Christian scriptures were being written, despite the widespread Jewish view that all their subsequent interpreters have done is noticed what was already there from the beginning (the concept of an oral Torah being given by Moses alongside the Pentateuch is widespread, but in fact the oral Torah is the product of some thousands of years of theological development). However, where I refer approvingly to Rabbi Artson’s views on salvation and supersessionism later in this post, I have the backing of the New Perspective on Paul, and in particular E.P. Sanders’ book “Paul and Palestinian Judaism”.]

I witnessed an awful example of stepping on Jewish toes (happily there were no Jews present)  on a recent Sunday, when a preacher worked from the text of Luke 6:1-11, a challenge parable about Jesus involving gleaning grain on the Sabbath. In his account, the Pharisees were spiritless literalists who added to scripture extra provisions regarding the Sabbath which were just a millstone round people’s necks. Yes, the Pharisees  had added clarification of the actual commandment that you do no work on the Sabbath, but not out of any intent to make things more difficult, rather out of the impulse to do more fully that which God has commanded. Here’s a link to illustrate this process. There is, of course, the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, i.e. making sure that you do not disobey commands by extending the scope of what you don’t do so that you don’t inadvertently stray over the line, but even there it must be remembered that the impulse is “God has commanded this, I wish to do what is pleasing to God, so I do it – and indeed do more if possible”.

Rabbi Artson also usefully mentions Jewish exegesis, and in particular the principle that while you can interpret fairly freely, the basic meaning of a text (the Peshat) should not in principle be contradicted by what you produce by Remez (a hidden or symbolic meaning), Derash (an extended meaning often drawn from comparisons with other texts) or Sod (a mystical or deeply symbolic explanation). Readers who have read all of my blog posts will perhaps remember that I tend to take the view that an earlier text cannot be completely thrown out of the window (unless this is done completely explicitly) by a later one, i.e. when interpreting the New Testament I need to consider what the Old Testament, and particularly the Torah (the first five books) says on the subject; I assume, of course, that the New Testament writers were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded them as authoritative and would only supersede them by  clear direct statement (such as Mark 7:19) and not, as it were, by stealthy suggestion.

Of course, Rabbi Artson has a problem with at least some expressions of the Christian concept of salvation through Jesus (which is often labelled “salvation history” or “redemption history”). That is a problem which I share (and I’m not alone there), and I cast a lot of the blame for that on Paul’s interpreters (and a little on Paul himself). As the Rabbi says, in terms of Judaism there is no such thing as “original sin”, and redemption or salvation is through the simple process of repenting sin and turning to God. The whole of chapter 18 of Ezekiel deals very explicitly with this; the only additional point I make is that to repent, in Judaism, means not only to be sorry and to resolve to change your future behaviour, but to strive to make good any damage you have caused. As he points out, any sacrificial offering made thereafter in compliance with Levitical law, is evidence of that repentance and of the decision to turn back to God and to God’s commandments, it is not payment for the sin.

Of course, a very common message of Christianity has for much of its history been something like the Evangelical Christian’s standard formula (which I generally see presented as “the gospel”):-

God created a perfect world (and saw that it was good), but by disobedience, Adam messed things up and, as Paul says “sin entered the world through one man”, making us all subject to “original sin” and destined for eternal punishment. God then gave the Mosaic Law, but (again as Paul says) this was ineffective to save mankind from sin (Gal 3, Rom. 10), so there is a need for salvation by Christ, effected by means of his sacrificial death interpreted as “atoning”; we can then accept that salvation by praying the sinners’ prayer; at that point we are “saved”.

Here’s a clip of a rather longer account from the evanglical preacher R.C. Sproull. His talk is entitled “City of God” and, indeed, it is Augustine’s work of the same title which introduced the concept of “original sin”.

Anything beyond that is really somewhat disconnected from the basic fact of being saved, and I not infrequently hear “once saved, always saved”. Unless, I hear it said, every part of this very short story (compared with, for instance, any of the actual gospels) is correct, Christianity is a nullity. Here’s an example from an Evangelical source arguing on that basis that Adam must be historical, effectively because his historicity is necessary for the “salvation history” account. I see this creeping into other theological arguments – salvation history must be maintained, so (for instance) Catherine LaCugna criticises the standard philosophical Catholic background for the Trinity as not allowing adequately for Jesus’ saving activity.

There are many problems with this abbreviated account, not least that it doesn’t these days provide a good basis for evangelising. As has been pointed out, “I have good news: you’re a hopeless sinner and are destined for Hell” doesn’t tend to retain an audience. Unless people are already convicted of sin with respect to God, they are unlikely to respond to this. I say “with respect to God” as a sizeable group will respond that they have sinned against other human beings, but that is a matter between them and those they have sinned against and, even if they believe in God, do not think that God has the first (or sometimes any) interest in that. In fact, Paul adverts to this: “On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law”. Many people these days, who have not been brought up with a concept of needing to comply with “God’s Law”, will think that this rendering of “the gospel” is giving a solution to a problem which they don’t have. Again, this account frankly renders both Jesus’ lifetime ministry and the resurrection irrelevant. All his life needs to provide us with, in this account, is a demonstration that he was sinless, and it is his death, not his resurrection, which effects the release from sin.

It is commonly at this point in an argument that someone raises the issue of Hebrews 9:22, and suggests that there cannot be any forgiveness without the shedding of blood. This is not, of course, the case: the passage reads that one might almost say that, or that there is nearly no counter-instance, though Leviticus 5:11 clearly allows the substitution of an ephah of flour for the impecunious, and the argument of Hebrews is that we are effectively embarrassed in presenting an adequate sacrifice due to the lack of blood of sufficient worth. I pass over the possible suggestion in Hebrews that the covering (atonement) is equivalent to forgiveness, because this would in this combination be equivalent to denying the processes of forgiveness set out in the Hebrew Scriptures (such as Ezekiel 18). I suggest as a start point for interpretation that the thrust of Hebrews is linking Jesus’ death to the actions in a Heavenly parallel of the now destroyed Temple of Jerusalem, and thus appropriating the sacrificial language – and not seeking to argue that God could not forgive sin without the spilling of blood, which would be contrary to previous scripture.

I think it is necessary, therefore, to interpret Paul’s language in Romans not as having overturned God’s previous system of forgiveness of sins, but to be a midrash (derash) looking to extend understanding. Indeed, as Paul points out in Rom. 3:25-26, God had left sins unpunished. What he is complaining of is his (and by extension our) inability to stop sinning. This is, of course, what was picked up by Martin Luther and extended to the principle that we are naturally incapable of acting without sin. Now, I note with interest that Robert Sapolsky identifies Luther as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is not difficult to see how this condition could generate a theology of inability to do the right thing; it is a feature of the disease. Forgive me if I find myself incapable of accepting a theology which grows out of a mental disorder from which I do not suffer (the state of my desk is ample witness to that!).

I could wonder whether the same aliment afflicted Paul, and was his “thorn in the flesh”, or at least a part of it, but see no other evidence in his writings. However, there may be a sufficient explanation in the “fence around the Torah” concept, which can spur the very devout to constant addition to the burden of things they must adhere to without an actual mental disorder. In fact, every Orthodox or Conservative Jew I’ve ever exhanged views with has confirmed to me that in fact, it is not particularly difficult to adhere to all of the Law (against what Paul seems to be saying in Romans), including not only those extended provisions which had been deduced in the first century, but all those which have since been deduced. This does not mean, however, that Judaism teaches that we can be perfect and avoid sin completely; it assumes that we will sin in some way, as Judaism has it’s own teaching that with Adam, i.e. in our original formation, we acquired a will towards evil (yetzer ha’ ra) as well as a will towards good (yetzer ha’tov) – but that the process of repentance and making amends is sufficient to restore our relationship with God (and man).

Paul’s position has been a vexed question for a very long time. Kurt Willems has recently started an excellent podcast series, the early parts of which briefly describe the problems of interpretation and some of the attempts at a solution. 20 years ago, it would not have been a problem for me, as I was then of the opinion that Paul had pretty much wrecked the message of Jesus and could safely be ignored. Now, however, I have to acknowledge both that Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian writings, that they form the majority of the Christian Scriptures (at least in the West) and that they are accepted as authoritative. So where do I go with this?

Firstly, while I accept that Paul was at least on occasion inspired (F.C. Happold identifies him as a Christian mystic), I ask myself whether the whole of what he wrote was inspired, and find that in at least one case he explicitly states that something he writes is his own opinion. Generally theologians have taken that to mean that wherever he doesn’t say that, he IS inspired, but I consider it to cast doubt on the inspiration of other parts of his writings.

Secondly, it is clear that in the relevant parts of Romans and to a lesser extent Galatians which found the “salvation history” narrative, he is doing theology rather than recounting a vision or, more explicitly, a revelation from God.

I therefore approach these bits of Paul as early theology, which I can criticise if I find his method lacking – and clearly it was lacking if only in that it failed to advert to a quite clear mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures (Ezekiel 18 etc). However, I also find it lacking in that the portrait it paints of God is one where God delivers to Israel a huge set of rules and regulations (the Law) which is completely useless  as an adjunct to the covenant he makes with Israel – and that would be a God I would find it very difficult to follow. God then compounds the situation by waiting through at least a millenium before putting forward a solution (and yes, I know that Christian theologians have attempted to make Jesus’ sacrifice retroactive, but that does not form consolation during their lifetimes for those who have observed the Law). I’m with Peter Enns in considering that Paul does not do anything like a good enough job of substantiating his claims that the Law is nevertheless good and useful and yes, I might even agree that Paul is “winging it”. But I do not think that Paul intended to give this impression, particularly in the light of his comments, Rom. 3:1: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way” and Rom. 7:7, “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” .

So what is Paul actually attempting to say in his midrash here (because I am convinced that it is a midrash, i.e. an extension of scripture done according to at least loosely rabbinic principles)? It cannot be that, in truth, we are unable to avoid contravening the Mosaic Law (as this is demonstrably not the case), nor can it be that there is no mechanism for restoring ourselves to a right relationship with God absent faith in Jesus in any simple sense (as there was a perfectly adequate mechanism in the Hebrew Scriptures already).

I think the issue is this. Judaism is concerned, as per Rabbinic tradition and the New Perspective, with maintaining faithful inclusion in the Mosaic covenant which, by birth and (in the case of men) circumcision they are already part of (and, as a mark of devotion, doing it better and better); Paul is not talking about that. He is talking about freedom from the Yetzer ha-Ra, the evil impulse, which is what causes people to sin. Judaism accepts that humanity is subject to that, and that the resulting sin can be dealt with through teshuvah (repentance and restoration) even if the further “atoning” sacrifice is no longer available in the absence of the Temple (and, incidentally, the writer of Hebrews is putting Jesus’ death in the position of a once-for-all atoning sacrifice which deals with that absence, just in case the rabbinic arguments were insufficient; it should not in my view be read as indicating that it was absolutely necessary, as clearly under the Hebrew Scriptures it was not).

Paul, as I have said, was a mystic. Furthermore, he was a Christ-mystic, reading the base mystical experience as an experience specifically of Christ. He talks at length of “being in Christ” “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8: 1) and, again, Gal 3. He talks equally about “Christ in us” (Gal. 2:20). This is, for Paul, an unitive experience; he perceives himself as united with Christ, and inasmuch as this is the case, he is immune from the yetzer ha’ra; a more modern Jew might say that he is identifying Christ with the yetzer ha’tov, the impulse towards good. As a God-mystic myself (my own experiences have not had any particular favour of being “of Christ”), this makes perfect sense; inasmuch as I can hold on to union with God, I do not have any impulse to sin. Of course, Paul also complains that on occasion he wishes to do good but in fact sins; I would identify this as being when he has lost his unitive connection for a time.

Paul is therefore aiming at an entirely different target from that which has commonly been thought; he is aiming at the perfection of the individual will such that it is in complete conformity with the Will of God (interpreted in his case as the Will of Christ). This, I am reasonably confident, his mystical experience delivered to him – and it was marvelous to him, just as a similar experience was marvelous to me, and it changed him radically, just as a similar experience did me.

However, I think he makes a mistake common to quite a lot of mystics, and one which I made myself for quite some time; he assumes that because his own experience is this, anyone else can have the same experience. Sadly, I have found with many years of trying that very few people appear to be able to have an absolute peak mystical experience; at least, not without a lifetime of effort.

I think at some point Paul also realised this, as he elsewhere gives instructions as to what the “fruits of the spirit” should be, and  suggests that people should cultivate these. Those gripped by a peak mystical experience, the effects of which do not wear off quickly, would not need instruction. However, the other thing experience has taught me (and, drawing from this, it may also have taught Paul) is that the “act as if” principle does have some validity; if you act as if you’re spirit-filled, or in union with Christ, or in union with God, or (as I think Jesus was using a different term to describe the same condition) as a member of the Kingdom of God, eventually the outward actions form the inward reality.

And who knows, maybe the impulse to do the outward actions more and better will also grip you. Sounds almost Jewish, doesn’t it? But it isn’t “works righteousness”…



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Renouncing Satan

April 4th, 2016

Following my last post, I came across an interview with Richard Beck on “Newsworthy with Norsworthy” which is well worth a listen, as it touches on the focus of that post. Or, alternatively, just because it has Richard talking discursively about a lot of interesting stuff…

It also links with a comment I had by email to that last post (and let me take this opportunity to say that I really like getting feedback or pushback on my posts; replies are unmoderated, but you do need a WordPress account – but you can get one of those, free, very easily).

That question was about the baptismal formula, which I’ve replied to twice in just over a week, first at the Easter Vigil and yesterday at a baptism. “Do you renounce Satan?” is the question. As Richard remarks, this can be a rather difficult form of words for those who have difficulty with the idea of a real supernatural devil, such as most liberals, and I count myself among those.

Walter Wink’s conception of the powers and principalities, however, gives a very definite focus to the renouncing. I certainly renounce free market capitalism, for instance, and consumerism, and valuing people by the size of their bank balance, their income or what they possess, and the uncritical patriotism of “my country, right or wrong”, and xenophobia and Islamophobia. Those are fairly easy for me, after quite a few years of practice.

I also, of course, renounce any form of adjustment of my mind by substances such as alcohol and drugs; it has taken a while to be reasonably confident that I can actually manage that, but today I am, one day at a time. I wish I knew who had first said it, but “Do not adjust your mind; there is a fault in reality” is an useful catch phrase here – and part of the fault in reality is the pernicious effect of these principalities and powers, these ideologies which can be so deep seated in us.

I also renounce the concept of redemptive violence, of all forms of revenge and thinking that problems can properly be solved by the use of force, and that one is more difficult. There is, I find, a deep seated reaction when I hear of (for instance) the recent Brussels or Lahore bombings which wants to support a violent reaction to those who planned those attacks. The actual perpetrators are beyond any mundane penalty, which of course denies the victims (and me)  any form of direct retribution and in a way this makes things worse; the obvious next step for the atavistic urge to violence is to seek out people like the perpetrators, of course, and thus xenophobia and Islamophobia creep back in… and maybe at the back of this is fear, which can drive us to all sorts of evil.

This is particularly topical as we have just celebrated the Resurrection. Jesus commanded non-violence, that we should love our enemies and forgive those who hate us, and he died “giving his life as a ransom for many”; the Resurrection is his vindication, as is the fact that his followers are now everywhere, and there are few followers of the pagan gods of the first century who did represent redemptive violence.

He did not say “now revenge me”, but “now follow me”. He renounced Satan in the wilderness, renouncing not only the power to bring about supernatural effects in all three temptations, but also the driving force of hunger (and by implication other bodily needs), fear (in this case of falling, but perhaps also of failure) and temporal power.

Do you renounce Satan? I renounce Satan.

I need to keep doing this, as the Powers are still deep seated…

And, finally, I note that before Jesus confronted the powers of imperialism and religious orthodoxy, he first confronted his own demons. Those who have ears, let them hear!

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Talking with the demons

March 31st, 2016

A version of this post has appeared on the Energion Discussion Network.

A post from Patheos recently talked about exorcism in the New Testament from the point of view that these days we consider those who would have once been called “possessed” to be suffering from mental illness. Meanwhile, I notice that the inimitable Richard Beck will soon be releasing his next book “Reviving Old Scratch” (by which I assume he means Satan).

These illustrate two attitudes I tend to see among Christians styling themselves “progressive” or “liberal”; the first is that references to demons or to Satan have to represent purely psychological matters. There’s certainly some merit in that; a psychologist friend of mine talks about going on retreat as “going to sit down and talk to her demons”. However, the second reflects something with a wider application (as ultimately only I can sit down and talk to my personal psychological demons), and which I increasingly see in progressive or liberal writers, namely a willingness to take “principalities, powers and rulers” seriously.

In doing so, most are drawing on the work of Walter Wink in the remarkable “Powers” trilogy (or in his precis “The Powers that Be”). As Wink states “Every business corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team — indeed, social reality in all its forms — is a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual.”  He most definitely includes in this all ideologies, political and economic, and of course, via “denomination”, religious ideologies. They can be named, unmasked and engaged (to use the titles of the three volumes of the trilogy). All, in Wink’s view, can be viewed as “fallen” entities, thus at the same time being demonic and angelic, and being capable of salvation.

But they are definitely something which can, in a sense “possess” us, in that we uncritically devote ourselves to them, whether they be country, political party, economic viewpoint or merely our family (and if you don’t see how that can be a demonic or at least fallen power, watch the Godfather trilogy sometime).

Just as we all (I suspect) have our personal demons, we all (or at least a substantial majority of us) fall often into “possession” by one or more of these ideologies, or spirits; we can therefore, with caution, attempt to engage the spirits of those around us, individual or group, though in doing this it might be best if we have first engaged those possessing ourselves.

I am, for instance, currently seeing a fair proportion of my facebook feed currently possessed by spirits called “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Europe” or “Brexit” (British Exit). I’m on more solid ground with the first two, as they’re distinctively American spirits (though attacks on Sanders seem to engage a bit of that “knee jerk” reaction which I find is a good indication of a possessing spirit; in his case, I think, “anticapitalism” is the spirit in question); I’m on less solid ground with the UK ones, as I find I’m terrified of the possible consequences of leaving the EU, and that’s another telltale – if there are two opposing camps and you’re terrified of one, you may be too much in thrall to the other.

I say “attempt to engage with caution”, because we have just celebrated Easter, and Good Friday occurred first and foremost because Jesus engaged some of the Powers of his day, notably the imperial Roman Empire and the Temple insiders who allowed their own Power to ally itself to Rome. We may well find that in engaging some of the Powers of today, that we have, with Christ, picked up our cross.

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God in the hands of angry sinners?

March 8th, 2016

I have often been quoted Romans 3:25 in support of concepts of penal substitutionary atonement: “Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”. It is, it would seem, normally one of the foundational texts for this view.

There’s a snag to this, though, which leaped out at me the first time it was quoted to me. The propitiation is the wrong way round for concepts such as satisfaction or substitution. For either of those, God might be providing the propitiation, perhaps, but then man should be “putting it forward”, not God. It is for all the world as if God is propitiating mankind, rather than mankind propitiating God (which would have to be the case with satisfaction or substitution).

This is only accentuated by the second sentence, which reads as if God is concerned that men may think him inconsistent, and therefore unrighteous, or in other words to some extent at fault. This, I think, saves this from being a passage which supports the ransom theory of atonement – the propitiation might otherwise be thought to be to Satan rather than to mankind.

What we have, therefore, is Christ’s death on the cross as a gesture from God to appease mankind, to correct a misconception which they may have. It has nothing to do with God forgiving or not forgiving, nothing to do with an affront to God’s honour (except insofar as he may have been thought to be unrighteous), nothing to do with a payment for sin. To a cynic, this is a marketing exercise rather than a cosmic event correcting the relationship between men and God in an ontic way – yes, it might well restore a right relationship, but only by changing human minds – “by faith”, bringing them back to trust in God’s righteousness.

But it is an extraordinary gesture. It is saying to mankind “You look to solve problems with violence, and I have forgiven you in the past; look, I can forgive you even killing Me, I make myself available for you to kill”. And, of course, the resurrection says “but ultimately you cannot kill me, and your violence has achieved nothing”.

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Naturalism and it’s discontents

February 27th, 2016

A man was caught in floods, and climbed up onto his roof to avoid the rising waters. He prayed to God to save him from the flood. Along came a man in a monster truck, which had a high enough wheelbase to be clear of the water, and offered him transport out of there. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Along came a man in a boat, and offered him a place in the boat. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Then a helicopter flew over, and a man called from it “Here, I’ll drop you a ladder – climb up and I’ll take you to safety”. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Eventually, standing on the ridge of the roof, with the water lapping at his feet, the man prayed again “God, why have you not saved me?” A voice came from the clouds “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter – what more do you want me to do?”.

I’ve recently had a couple of exchanges on Global Christian perspectives revolving round the fact that I’m a methodological naturalist. That means that, when confronted with a situation, I look for natural rather than supernatural causes, i.e. I look for a scientific explanation.

What happens if I can’t work out a scientific explanation? In conscience, I assume that there actually is a scientific explanation, just not one which I can yet understand – maybe based on scientific principles which haven’t yet been discovered. What I don’t do is go the extra step and say that it is not possible that there is a non-scientific, supernatural explanation (which would be ontological naturalism, i.e. naturalism going to the root of what things are in themselves) – but for all practical purposes, that isn’t saying much. It caused a bit of a stir at my small group a while ago when I said that I couldn’t believe in any supernatural cause – how is it, one person asked, that you can be a Christian and not believe in the supernatural?

It’s actually entirely possible. There are even atheist Christians, who positively disbelieve in the existence of God, but much more widespread are a large number of what are commonly labelled “liberal” theologians, of whom a 20th century German theologian called Rudolph Bultmann stands out. His great project was to “demythologise” scripture, which meant to look for the meaning of scripture stripped of all the mythological elements, which included miracles, but also a large amount of the story told in scripture, in his case particularly any account of the historical Jesus.

Much of the academy (i.e. those who study theology and scripture professionally in universities) are in line with this kind of thinking. However, this relatively seldom translates into local churches, at least in my experience; theologically trained clergy put aside their philosophical positions when delivering their sermons, or they find some philosophical “work round” such as neo-orthodoxy or post-liberalism. I have never heard a sermon attempting to explain either!

In conscience, though, I also find that whatever the people in the pews state as their beliefs (which are usually far more historically conventional than followers of Bultmann), in practice they are also methodological naturalists. Most of them will respond very positively to the story I started with, variants of which I’ve heard in several sermons. Most of them will not rely just on prayer for healing, they will also see a doctor and take medicine. They are largely relying on naturalistic solutions, though they may well pray as well.

A few, a very few, actually go through life depending on God (or as an atheist would see it, chance) to provide for them. They appear actually to believe that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20). And, mirabile dictu, it quite often seems to work for them. Mind you, it also seems that non-religious people who are fired with unshakeable convictions can sometimes achieve things which the average somewhat doubtful person could not. To this congenitally sceptical observer, it also seems that sometimes both groups set themselves up for colossal failure by doing this, and that the positive impression I have painted may be largely the result of confirmation bias, but from where I sit, if you can live like that, do it. I can’t, however hard I may try.

I am not, of course, suggesting that people are being hypocritical or lying about their beliefs, or at least not any more than every human being does. Most people, I find, don’t actually examine their beliefs in very much detail, and those that do may well feel that a kind of desperate hope that, in fact, things might be the way they believe is sufficient. I can manage that desperate hope myself (and do, particularly when there’s no other option than desperate hope) – I just can’t any more elevate it to the category of something I really believe in

That, of course, extends to “faith that” statements which I am regularly asked to confirm I believe, and where those include a supernatural element (such as, for instance, the virgin birth) I have to say that I cannot actually bring myself to believe these; the nearest I can get is to suspend disbelief and (with Bultmann) look for what else such a statement is able to carry as a message.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no antipathy toward the supernatural – in fact, I would love there to be supernatural explanations for things. When younger, I was fascinated with claims of supernatural events and effects and spent a lot of time exploring groups and traditions which claimed to have special knowledge and/or special abilities in that direction. I am still keen on reading fantasy books for relaxation, and have a weak spot for superhero narratives. The trouble is, almost universally I came to the conclusion that in the world which we inhabit, supernatural forces are not at work. The most I can say is that we do not yet fully understand all of the natural forces which exist. That, tempered with the occasional desperate hope…

Mind you, in studying “the supernatural”, I very much took the view that it needed to have theories of how it worked, and experimental techniques, and confirmatory experiments – and all this would actually have reduced the supernatural to another set of natural forces, just ones which didn’t operate by the set of rules we currently have in science. The personal God would, in addition, have a character, and that could be analysed.

In other words, in doing theology, we are attempting to establish sets of rules by which supernatural events and effects operate, with a view to controlling their effects on ourselves. If we view God as having, in any sense, agency (i.e. being able to act in the world other than as an impersonal force), theologians are attempting to psychoanalyse God, to establish what God will do given a particular set of circumstances – and as time has gone by, they are less willing to accept a view of God as arbitrary and unpredictable (faithful, steadfast and just are frequently used terms, while philosophical theologians have arrived at terms such as unchanging and immutable). The gods of (for instance) Greece, Rome or the Teutons or Norse were hugely unpredictable, and historically they lost ground very rapidly to a God conceived of as being rather more reliable.

If we view God as being more akin to an impersonal force (which is broadly speaking the deist position), it is still possible to analyse how it is that this force operates in the world. Finally, if we end up in the position of God as “ground of all being” or “the condition for the possibility of existence”, analysis will still take place, although among philosophical theologians rather than what we might call “practical theologians”. The unpredictable is anathema these days (it wasn’t in the days of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods, who could be incredibly arbitrary and unpredictable), and most of us instinctively agree with Einstein when he said “God doesn’t play dice” – though, at a subatomic level, it now seems that this is exactly what everything we see depends on.

In this connection, I think it’s worth mentioning two approaches to conceiving of God. One is that of the philosophers, starting in the West (as far as our records show) with Plato. There is a splendid set of lectures by Professor Keith Ward outlining this general approach. The trouble is, the God outlined by the philosophers is usually a long way from both the interventionist picture of God and from the personal picture of God enshrined in Christian scripture. But then, I think that reasoning towards God from first principles is a fundamentally flawed idea; to me God is first and foremost an experiential reality, and any picture of God must be built up from that experience, and not from philosophical argument. In any event, these arguments end up with a God who is far more impersonal force than personal, relational entity, and I harbour the strong suspicion that any suggestion that this is what God most fundamentally is is eventually going to come up against a new discovery of science which actually describes how that force operates.

Another (and it is to some extent part of the philosophers’ armoury) is the appeal to a first cause, something which set everything we know of in motion, called it into existence; the creator God. Of course, science has taken over most of the history of the universe, and from the point of view of physics, it is fairly settled what has happened since the extremes of the first second or so after the Big Bang (and there really is no place for a creator in that account). However, a source of constant wonder for scientists (myself included) is the fact that so many physical quantities are so precisely fixed as to create circumstances in which all of the immensity and complexity of the known universe could exist. There is a good lecture by Professor Ard Louis on this subject, which I think illustrates well how finely tuned physics actually is to produce what we see.

There are a few problems with Prof. Louis’ account. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult and deceptive to calculate probabilities for something happening which has in fact happened – after all, the probability of something happening which has actually occurred is 100% (or 1). In any event, it can readily be suggested that the anthropic principle is fundamentally flawed in that, in order for us to be observing this amazing coincidence of masses of constants, those constants in any case had to be exactly as they are; had they not been, there would have been no observer.

Some physicists extend this thinking and posit that on every occasion on which more than one thing might happen, actually all possible things happen and the universe splits into multiple almost identical “multiverses”. It’s worth mentioning that this idea, which would have horrified William of Occam, who inveighed against the multiplication of metaphysical entities, is also attractive to some theologians, who find in is a solution to the freewill -v- determinism issue – with multiverses, everything can be simultaneously totally determined and totally freely chosen. I rather recoil against it myself. After all, one of the fundamental drives of both scientists and theologians is to simplify things so that they can be understood, rather than complicate them to an extent approaching infinity!

However, there is as more substantive problem, and that is that physics does not have any idea of a mechanism by which such physical quantities might be fixed. This feeds back into my first point – if you don’t know anything about a mechanism, assessing the probability of one thing happening rather than another is perhaps foolish. Also, however, it leaves the age old hostage to fortune in being a “God of the gaps” answer. Science has filled a very large number of those gaps in the past, and this one might get filled in the future. Also, I am inclined to go along with the argument of Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” regarding the Babel Fish, an universal translator:- “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. “

Finally, of course, it doesn’t paint a picture which the authors of either the New Testament or the Old would have recognised as being God.

Of course, this is all at base because science answers the question “how does this happen?”, generally with the subtext of “how can I make it happen, or prevent it from happening, again?” or “what new and interesting things could I see once I understand how this happens?”. It does not answer the questions “what is the purpose of this?” or “what does this mean?” Those questions, at least arguably, only have validity in the space of thought.

And, of course, whatever science may explain away, it is undeniable that God exists in the space of human thought and, as our experience is always in that space, in human experience.






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I am who I am…

February 9th, 2016

There has been an interesting discussion on The Jesus Blog of the use in Mark 6:50 of the words “ego eimi” (in the Greek), meaning in a literal way “I am”. One might think that this is not a basis for much theological speculation, but this is a famous couplet which, in its use in John 8:58 is one of the relatively few places in scripture which people use to assert that Jesus claimed to be God (rather than that his followers claimed this). “Jesus said unto them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

(Note – my links are to an online Greek-English interlinear, and there’s a need to scroll down to the last page in both cases).

I’ve written about this before, but now the identification of the use of what is, let’s face it, just the words “I am” seems to be spreading well outside that instance, I think it’s worth another look.

The issue is, of course, that in Exodus 3:14, it is stated “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. And he said ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”‘”. In the Hebrew original, the phrase is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” (and “I am who I am” is only one of several potential translations suggested for it; “I am who I will be” is also a popular version, and in the link I give next, the translation is “I am the being”). The Greek version of this in the Septuagint uses the words “ego eimi”. Actually the phrase is “ego eimi ho on”, which would naturally translate “I am the being”. “Ego eimi” is not, for what its worth, susceptible of quite as many alternative translations into English as is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh”, but does capture some of the potential sense.

From this, theologians have long re-read John 8:58 as “before Abraham was, I am [I AM]”, making it a direct claim of identity with the God of Exodus. This has been particularly attractive due to the need to infer an extra verb (see the square brackets above). “Ego eimi” is used quite a lot of times in John; nowhere in the synoptics is there much language from Jesus stating what he is, but the Fourth Gospel has a particular agenda, made obvious by its preamble (John 1:1-18). It is THE wording used by proponents of Lewis’ trilemma, a tool of evangelism which I particularly hate.

Let me recapitulate my feelings about this passage. Firstly, if the natural meaning of the passage is indeed “I am God”, given that its context was in a discussion with scribes and pharisees, had Jesus said it, his life expectancy would have been measured in minutes rather than (as the gospel would have it) a year or two. At the most, therefore, the passage must have been seen as ambiguous by the writer; at the least, the extra verb to be inferred must have been “was” at the end, so it would read “before Abraham was, I AM [was]”; the inference to be drawn from that would then be that Jesus claimed particular knowledge granted to him by his God, who of course pre-existed Abraham and therefore knew the things in question.

In fact, however, I do not view the author of the Fourth Gospel as reporting Jesus’ actual lifetime words most of the time (and nor do a very substantial number of biblical scholars), I view him as reporting what he thinks Jesus might have (or ought to have) said in the circumstances reported. In the process, he is keen to show the priestly and scholarly elite countered and confounded by some clever wording and (in the case of the exchange with Nicodemus) ambiguous terminology. To use a phrase capable of multiple interpretations, one of which might indicate a high Christology but others of which might be entirely mundane, would be quite in keeping with the rest of his usage.

I do not in saying this, incidentally, suggest that the writer was fabricating in a deplorable way; I am quite confident, from the preamble, in identifying the author as a mystic with a striking similarity to the entirely Jewish Philo of Alexandria (much of whose thinking on the logos is recapitulated in precis in John 1) who is specifically a Jesus mystic. I see him as interpreting his mystical experience of God through the filter of identifying this as an experience specifically of Jesus (hence all the “I am” statements), and this is very much a cosmic Christ rather than a mundane Jesus. However, it is still not necessarily the case that the author saw Jesus as ontologically equivalent with the God of Abraham; he could have considered him as “principal agent” through whom God worked, or indeed as the material representation of that principal agent.

At the most, therefore, I see ego eimi here as being deliberately ambiguous wording.

What of the various scholars writing on or referred to in the Jesus Blog taking the use of ego eimi in Mark as indicating a far higher Christology than is normally associated with that gospel? I think that is a stretch, and a stretch too far. It is true that a recurring theme in Mark is that the apostles are completely missing the point of Jesus’ sayings and actions, but in expounding that, Mark is not using clever uses of ambiguous words, but parables and metaphors. It is a completely different technique.

The use of what is, on face value, merely the statement “I am” to designate godly status is one which would only potentially be valid if there were substantial other evidence that what was being set up in the wider context was a theophany, and while I was impressed by the argument that Jesus walking on the sea and stilling the waves does give that wider context, I think it falls short of establishing a sufficient probability. That way leads far too easily to seeing every use of ego eimi (and there are a LOT of those, many of which don’t refer to either God or Jesus) as theophanies.

We might even start seeing this as a theophany!

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In passing, eh’yeh asher eh’yey, I am that I am,  is perhaps the strangest thing identified as “the name of God”. It is echoed, however, in “He who is” (and “She who is” in Elizabeth Johnson’s book). I am not convinced that I can, in fact, see it as that – the usage in Exodus would, therefore, be a one-off, a singular usage not to be repeated and certainly not able to be echoed in John or Mark with that significance. I cannot, for instance, contemplate using it “to His face, if I was faced with Him in all His Glory”. It just doesn’t work as a name. As an avoidance of any naming in Exodus, however, yes…

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