Posts Tagged ‘Interfaith’

The incoherence of the philosophers?

September 2nd, 2016

I came across an “In Our Time” in which Melvyn Bragg discusses Averroes, the 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, with, inter alia, Peter Adamson of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. I recommend both.

One point I particularly take away is this. Islam had, in the twelfth century, discovered the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, and had started translating these into Arabic (a practice which, mostly via the incredibly tolerant culture of al-Andaluz (Andalucia) in which for a brief period Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together and sparked off each others’ works, introduced the Christian West to Aristotle, who had been largely forgotten about).

This concerned a theologian called al-Ghazali, writing in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali wrote a work against Aristotle (who he thought was dangerous to Islamic faith) called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, thus making himself a philosopher as well as a theologian – you can’t attack philosophy as a discipline without, ironically, being a philosopher yourself.

Averroes was engaged in writing commentaries on Aristotle, which were so influential that some centuries later Thomas Aquinas referred to Averroes as “The Commentator” and quoted him extensively. Not surprisingly, Averroes didn’t always agree with al-Ghazali, and wrote a rebuttal called “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”. However, on some things he did agree with al-Ghazali, but attributed that to faults in the interpretation of Aristotle by Avicenna, a Muslim philosophical giant of the previous century…

Don’t you just love philosophers?

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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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Roman Catholic (and other) terrorists?

August 13th, 2016

George Takei (always good value to follow) has posted a photo of a letter to the editor from an Australian newspaper. It’s a really good letter, calling attention as it does to the fact that when the Provisional IRA were waging a terror campaign against the United Kingdom, no-one in Australia (or the world generally) referred to them as “Roman Catholic terrorists” and no-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be denied entry to Australia, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA were acting, in their eyes, for the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland and were mostly Catholics.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this applied equally in the remainder of the UK – we didn’t call them Catholic Terrorists, we didn’t ban Catholics from entering the country. The situation was, however, a little different in Northern Ireland itself, where notable members of the Unionist parties typically saw the IRA as the minions of the Pope, who was (as they were largely fairly fundamentalist Protestants) the Antichrist. The Unionist side had their own paramilitary organisations (such as the UVF and the UDA) which equally used terrorist tactics – and the rest of the UK and the world in general didn’t call them Protestant Terrorists either.

This might be considered surprising, as the Unionist attitude was very much what had been the English (and therefore largely the British) attitude generally after Henry VIII decided to nationalise the English possessions of the Catholic Church and the Pope excommunicated him, and he and several subsequent Popes adhered to the line that the duty of all good Catholics was to work to bring about the downfall of England as a nation. In 1605, this extended to the earliest political bomb plot I can think of, in which the catholic convert Guy Fawkes and others attempted unsuccessfully to blow up parliament and with it King James I, not in response to a specific papal order, but definitely in response to repeated papal pronouncements. It took a long time before Catholics were regarded as anything other than probable agents of a foreign power and probable terrorists in England, not just by the state but also by the population at large, involving a lot of barbaric persecution in the early period and causing riots as late as 1780. Some of that popular feeling was actually still present when I was growing up; Catholics were regarded as slightly suspect. However, there wasn’t a widespread identification of the “Troubles” as being the fault of Catholics generally, and certainly Catholics in general were not blamed for any of the actions of the IRA, though for some years we were wary of people with Irish accents. Except by the Northern Ireland Unionists…

Many UK commentators are at pains to paint the Troubles as not a religious conflict but a struggle for national self-determination, but I think they go too far downplaying the religious aspect, not least because religion was fundamental in creating the divided population in the first place. Certainly there were by the 1960s two communities in Northern Ireland, one which saw its identity as part of an united Ireland and the other seeing its identity as part of an unified Great Britain, but that was only one aspect of the respective identities, and another (and very strong) aspect was religion. If you were Catholic, you were almost certainly in favour of an united Ireland, if you were Protestant you were almost certainly in favour of an united UK including Northern Ireland. The touchstone for that identity was religion, and an English rabbi tells of going to Northern Ireland and being asked almost immediately whether he was Catholic or Protestant. He replied that he was Jewish; there was a pause, then came the question “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” The same story has been told to me by more than one atheist, which might lead one to conclude that it’s just a pointed joke which changes its non-christian teller depending on circumstance, but even if it is a fiction, it’s a very true fiction. To anyone who lived through that period (and, indeed, probably the current-day visitor to Northern Ireland) it rings true; that is exactly what the first question of anyone usually was.

In other words, while the conflict might well have been primarily a national and/or ethnic one, religion was so fundamentally part of both national and ethnic identities that it was also a religious conflict. In the secularised West, we are inclined to overlook the fact that for the vast bulk of history and for the vast bulk of humanity now, religion is a fundamental part of their ethnic or national identity – and as the version of the story told by the atheist indicates, this is irrespective of whether you actually believe in the tenets of the faith in question. To anyone with this outlook, the question “are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” doesn’t sound in the slightest bizarre. There is just no third category in Northern Ireland, and there is no third category for most of humanity outside the Western secular democracies today.

Indeed, I can clearly identify, say, Richard Dawkins as a Christian atheist, in that his atheistic thinking is in direct reaction to Christian concepts, not to mention the fact that his upbringing was in a country steeped in Christianity for approaching 2000 years, and while having a surface tone not inimical to atheists, having extremely strong undercurrents of thought which are just – well – Christian. This article is at least partly on point.

I’m inclined to think that it’s pointless asking whether religion co-opted into the service of nationalism or nationalism co-opted into the service of religion is at the root of phenomena like terrorism (and its counterparts state tyranny and national xenophobia). The two are generally such close bedfellows that separating them is impossible. What I do take from this is that states, peoples and religions which feel existentially threatened (as was the case with England, both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout England and Ireland and in Northern Ireland much more recently than that, and is currently the case with some Islamic peoples, nations and groups on the one hand and several Western nations including the UK and US on the other) will react with extreme violence to protect themselves.

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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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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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Doubt, dissent and powerlessness

April 28th, 2016

Peter Enns has written a new book, “The Sin of Certainty”. I can’t wait to read it, particularly bearing in mind that a while ago I wrote a blogpost called “The Heresy of all Doctrine”. I can’t help thinking there may be some similarities! There’s a nice review of it at Baptist News, and an interview here.

But I don’t want to talk about the book itself before I’ve read it, what I want to pick up on is the reviewer’s heartfelt sorrow that post-evangelicals (a term which the reviewer thinks applies both to him and to Professor Enns) have little or no basis on which to evangelise, and thus little or no basis on which to increase their numbers other than from those evangelicals who find the confines of evangelicalism too stifling.

Now, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an “evangelical”. I grant you, I have been a member of a few evangelical congregations in the past, but always as something between “the token liberal”, who says interesting but sometimes scandalous things to provoke discussion, and “the dangerous liberal who we need to show the door to and prevent from talking anywhere where our weaker brethren may hear him”. No, that is not an exaggeration. Theologically I started out super-liberal and have drifted gently to a position of fairly liberal with a radical edge.

So, why, you might ask, am I trying to fit in with congregations which are far from agreeing with me theologically? Well, firstly, I gain more from talking with people who do not agree with me than I do from discussing things with people who do. Secondly, I find far more verve and energy in evangelical congregations, and I am not very good at generating this myself. Thirdly, perhaps as a side effect of the last, evangelical congregations (at least near me) seem to have more and better social gospel programmes.

But lastly, and probably most importantly, evangelical churches – well – evangelise. The more theologically liberal ones don’t (such as they are, as in general there are no churches near me with a theologically liberal stance overall, merely some with theologically liberal clergy leading rather less liberal congregations). I may be a liberal, but I take on board the “Great Commission”, to go out and make disciples. The snag is, liberal theology doesn’t sell church to non-believers. Oh, it can readily attract non-believers, I’ve found, but not in such a way that they want to “do church” thereafter (and particularly when they find that most churches are less than wholly welcoming to liberal theologies). Any change of thinking it produces doesn’t result in a change in living, a change of heart (rather than of intellectual conception) which I can measure, because by and large I’m not going to be seeing them or hearing from them regularly in a community.

It seems that this afflicts not only the liberal, but also the post-evangelical (many of whom now style themselves “progressive”). I read a lot of progressives, and find more in common with them than with perhaps any other group, even though I lack their roots in evangelicalism, but here we see from two directions the same complaint I have myself. It also afflicts radical theologians, as Father John Skinner of the European School of New Monasticism mentioned in a recent conversation, reminding me that John Caputo had described radical theology as parasitic on the mainline churches. Caputo sees radical theology not as something which can stand on its own, but as a gadfly, something to knock the complacency out of the mainline and perhaps, just perhaps, get it a little fired up again from time to time. Heaven knows, the mainline could do with being fired up! However, the mainline churches themselves are declining, and radical theologians will eventually have nothing to be gadflies to.

So what’s the problem here? Liberal/Progressive/Radical theologies are, to very many people, far more attractive and believable than is the standard evangelical message, which boils down to “We are sinners and deserve death, we need saving, Jesus died to save us, we are saved from death by making a commitment to follow Jesus”. Sadly, to me and very many people, this looks more like the message from Dorothy Sayers outlines in this post. I went into a lot more detail about why I find that message impossible to accept in my previous post.

On the whole, however, L/P/R theologies don’t have the emotional impact which the standard evangelical story has. They engage the intellect rather than the emotions, and a commitment to follow has to be an emotional commitment, quite aside the fact that the main components of faith are love and trust, both of which are more emotional than rational matters. By and large, you create emotional impact through a story, not through rational argument, and L/P/R doesn’t deliver an emotionally compelling story.

OK, these theologies may deliver a number of emotionally compelling stories (for a start, the Bible contains a lot of narratives other than “personal salvation”, some of which are major features in Judaism), but the multiplicity is confusing (particularly as some of them are mutually inconsistent), and a common feature of L/P/R theologies is that the real truth of things, the quiddity, the isness, is not knowable or only expressible as paradox. Some radical theologians identify that there is a fundamental lack in us, a yearning for something more, and where Evangelical Christianity says “It’s Jesus!” (and I’m inclined to say “It’s God”), they say that the lack is structural and cannot be filled, so we should just get used to it.

This is just not an emotionally satisfying narrative, quite apart from the fact that it argues against the validity of mystical experience, which when it has an unitive character, completely and very satisfactorily negates any sense of lack. Sadly, I cannot point to a “quick fix” route to becoming a mystic (would that I could); my initial experience of that kind was extremely powerful and came entirely out of the blue, and without a powerful base experience it is both more difficult to attain one (as I suspect) and definitely more unlikely that anyone would try.

Well, here’s a progressive evangelical suggesting that we should be less co-dependent and that  the simple message is “be transformed by Christ”. There’s mileage in that. For those who have an identifiable twelve-steppable problem, twelve step is the answer to living life despite the problem, and it requires a spiritual element; the best fit for that spiritual element is Christianity (let’s face it, although twelve step is religiously colour blind, its principles grew out of an evangelical Christian organisation). An alcoholic, for instance, might in step one admit that they were “powerless over alcohol and that their lives had become unmanageable”; for a gambler, the powerlessness would be over gambling.

Let me gently suggest that a really major problem for a very large majority of the population is powerlessness over other people. Some of us pursue a solution to this directly, entering politics or management, some indirectly via trying to make enough money that they are not dependent on anyone else, others work through manipulative personal relationships. Are our lives therefore “unmanageable”? Well, in the sense that we ultimately cannot control other people, yes.

This is co-dependency, and there is a twelve step programme for this (CODA), whose relevant step is  “We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable”. A slightly wider version admits powerlessness over persons, places and things, which should nail most of us, if not all.

Now, I’m not recruiting for CODA (I’m not a member, though I probably would qualify); there can be an answer in a local church, where you can be transformed – by Christ, by God or by the expression of Christ or God in a group of people. Perhaps this is what Liberals, Progressives and Radicals could agree is the simple message? Perhaps it’s compelling enough?

 

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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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Messiahs and their aftermaths

October 16th, 2015

I’ve just read an interesting article on what you might call “other Jewish Messiahs”. I wouldn’t argue with the conclusion that Bar Kochba probably did the most damage to Judaism of all of the 50 or so candidates.

However, I think the article misses the point of why modern Judaism considers Jesus to have been the most damaging. That’s because the result was a major rift in Judaism which produced a new religion which was considered non-Jewish, or at least it was following a rather painful process of separation which is dealt with in a very compelling way by Daniel Boyarin in “Border Lines” and in “A Radical Jew”. There are strong hints of the early stages of that process in Paul’s letters and in the book of Acts, but the process probably didn’t become complete until well after that, probably around the middle of the second century, much aided by Justin Martyr seeking to clarify an identity for Christianity as against Judaism.

How many ethnic Jews actually ended up following the new religion of Christianity is a hotly disputed subject; the standard Orthodox Jewish response would be that vanishingly small numbers of Jews, if any, would have accepted the Pauline disintegration of ethnic distinctives, those things which actually made Jews a people. There is probably now no way of establishing what the truth of the situation actually is; the New Testament witness would argue that significant numbers joined the new movement (I don’t say “converted”, because at the time I don’t think most would think there was a need to “convert”, seeing Christianity as a natural development within Judaism), but is clearly susceptible to allegations of bias. Rome too, it seems, had difficulty distinguishing the two, considering the very early reports of the Jews agitating at the instance of someone called “Chrestus” (Suetonius, writing probably around 100CE).

However, if one can assume that there were indeed significant numbers who joined the new movement (and, of course, all the very early members were Jewish), the fact that a new religion (and one with massive staying power) was thereby started would, I think, rank Jesus as the greatest threat. One has to recall that, for many Orthodox Jews, conversion to any religion other than Christianity is a failing, but becoming a Christian makes someone dead to Judaism (and funeral rites are not infrequently performed in absentia); conversion is thus seen as a form of genocide. Boyarin thinks, and I agree, that this attitude is a part of the increasingly acrimonious split which on the Christian side became antisemitism; I cannot now think that had it been Judaism which had achieved ascendancy there would not have been a major possibility of similar treatment of Christians, given the recent history of a resurgent nationalist Israel.

This thinking, however, leads me to posit a different ranking, based on which messiah figures came closest to instituting a new religion. Sabbatai Zvi has third place after Jesus there; there were at one point a very large number of followers and commentators at the time were concerned about the possibility of that becoming a majority in Judaism. However, the Sabbatarians proved not to have staying power, particularly after the forced conversion of their leader to Islam.

Second place, however, has to go to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is perhaps politically skated over by the article (though, to be fair, he cannot be blamed for many, if any deaths). He was the last Lubavitch Rebbe (and earlier Lubavitch Rebbes had also been hailed as messiah to a lesser extent). His followers are extant as Chabad Lubavitch, who have a very prominent presence in conservative Judaism to this day (running many Jewish educational establishments inter alia), and having a substantial proportion of people who still hold that the late Rebbe was Moschiach, and that any prophecies not actually fulfilled by him in his lifetime will be fulfilled in a second coming (some followers say “right idea, wrong guy” to Christians). Of course, they are not officially a separate religion – but not a few Rabbis think that they should be, as they follow someone who, from the strict point of view, is another failed messiah, as he did not fulfill ALL of the prophecies deemed messianic by Judaism. (A note for my Christian readers – these are not necessarily the same prophecies as Christians consider fulfilled or to be fulfilled by Jesus).

To my mind, Chabad escaped being declared a separate religion by the skin of their teeth in the late 20th century. If you were to ask me “Why?”, I might guess that by the time the problem was realised, Chabad actually had too large an influence in Judaism (Christianity might have had were it not for the elimination of most of the Jerusalem Church in 65-70 CE) and also by the fact that there was no-one in Chabad with the interests of Justin Martyr in distancing them from the rest of Judaism.

If nothing else, I think a study of Menachem Schneerson and Chabad casts an interesting light on how Christianity might have developed.

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Capitalism is an abomination, but maybe same-sex marriage isn’t…

June 11th, 2015

I don’t usually stray into issues around the acceptance (or otherwise) of homosexuality and same sex marriage. However, my attention has been drawn to a couple of really excellent blog posts.

The first of these is from Larry Behrendt, on Jewish-Christian intersections. Always stimulating and thought-provoking, Larry concentrates on issues around how and why Judaism and Christianity parted company, and what we can now do to overcome the historically nasty relationship between the two ( for which most of the blame lies with Christianity). In it, Larry points out that there is a good argument for saying that the “clobber text” in respect of homosexuality in Leviticus 20 can reasonably be read as indicating “taboo” rather than anything stronger, and as being culturally and temporally specific and not of general application; he points out (particularly interesting to me) that the same word, to-ehvah used of whatever is targeted by Lev. 20:13, is used of lending at interest and of investing for profit.

Now, if that be the case, using the usual biblical translation of “to-ehvah”, I can happily proclaim that capitalism is an abomination which should be taboo. This is going to preach!

The second is from J. Daniel Kirk, an evangelical professor at a fairly conservative seminary. Now, I like listening to Daniel (who is currently a regular contributor to Homebrewed Christianity’s Lectiocast, a resource for preachers working from the Lectionary). I like reading him. But he comes from a far more conservative strain of Christianity than I can really be comfortable with.

Here, however, it seems to me that he hits the issue squarely on the nail, and with superb force of argument. Certain people, he starts out, cannot be part of the community of God. Liberals (theological and social) should not stop reading there… the argument proceeds to make the point that the trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament regularly sets aside older exclusivist statements and replaces them with new, inclusivist ones, and asks why we cannot do the same here, despite Daniel thinking that the “clobber text” scriptures probably do actually target homosexuality in general rather than, as various very inventive interpreters have been doing recently, merely certain specific actions. I am still not certain I can go along with that portion of Larry’s argument, although I do find the in-depth look at the translation of Lev. 20 very interesting.

One reason why I have not commented is that about 40 years ago, I found myself asked by a friend, who is now in a same-sex marriage, to look at those clobber texts and tell him what I thought they meant for his clearly inborn sexual orientation, as he was a committed Christian. Much as I would have liked to reassure him, I cane to much the same conclusion as Daniel does – although you can argue about them, they probably evidence an exclusion of anyone with same-sex orientation both in Leviticus/Deuteronomy and in Paul’s letters, and said that I could wish that he might consider a different religious tradition (at the time, I was still exploring many religious traditions and could best have been described as a freelance monotheist of the panentheist variety). It was not possible at the time, and all I could suggest was that he reject those passages as not applicable. I did not see the internal justification which Daniel exposes for considering them as “timed out”.

Now, both Larry, in his more general thinking, and Daniel have provided ways in which the deselection of these passages as relevant to us here and now can be justified, and add to my earlier conclusion – that Christianity understands God as loving before anything else, and that he would not support the condemnation of exclusion of anyone on the basis of something they were born with. They have done it without the need to hold anything other than the highest view of scripture, as well. My thanks to both – and I wish I’d had their analyses 40 years ago!

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John 14, LDS and mitzvot

April 28th, 2015

The other day, I wanted to check the location of the statement “If you love me, keep my commandments” (it’s John 14:15, BTW). Google is by far easier than my trusty concordance for such questions, and it duly gave me the reference.

What struck me, however, was that once I’d got past the online bible entries, almost all references to this passage were from or referencing Latter Day Saints writing. There were maybe two or three non-LDS entries in 20 plus pages. One from John Piper, but otherwise pretty much nothing from any other branches of Christianity whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, Evangelical, Mainstream or Progressive. (I should note here that I include LDS as Christian, despite their having some additional scripture, which is commonly a dividing issue between religions. I also include Seventh Day Adventist, despite their having, arguably at least, an extra prophet in the form of Ellen White).

Why is this, I wondered? But then a possible answer occurred to me; it is perhaps unpopular in mainstream Christianity because it suggests to many people a form of “works righteousness”. I’d just done some thinking about this as a result of a Bible study of Colossians 2. Now, there isn’t really a clear “no works righteousness” statement there, but there is this:- 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (from Bible Gateway NRSV). There’s also the more or less obligatory warning against succumbing to suggestions that circumcision or keeping kosher are appropriate for Christians.

This prompted questions for the group such as “What might be the result of trying to base one’s whole relationship with God on rule-keeping…?” and “What convinced you that trying to live up to religious rules couldn’t change you on the inside?”. I stayed quiet, as it was clear to me that my input would not be what the group wanted to hear at this point (not least because I don’t think Paul wrote the epistle).

The trouble is twofold. The first problem is that the clear implication is that Judaism is “basing your whole relationship with God on rule-keeping” and “can’t change you on the inside”, and this is an outdated picture. A chain of scholarship of which E.P. Sanders’ “Jesus and Judaism” is the early high point has shown beyond any doubt that the Judaism of the First Century wasn’t the ineffective obsessive rulekeeping which it’s so often portrayed as in conservative circles, based on Paul’s commentary in Romans 1-8. It wasn’t that in the first century, and it hasn’t been that in any century since, though it must be granted that there are probably individuals and groups within Judaism for which it is actually no more than that.

Sanders and those following him in the “new Perspective on Paul” have, I think, shown very clearly that the basis of Judaism then was “covenantal nomism”. The covenant (land and favoured status) is given to the chosen people as a free gift, and the Law is also given as a gift, to be followed as evidence of and a practical form of gratitude and love for God in return. Granted, widespread failure to follow the Law results in episode after episode of disaster for the people of God recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, but following the Law is not the precondition, it’s the way in which you display that you individually are within the covenant, and in which you contribute to the collective faithfulness which will, it is hoped, bring about the reign of God on earth. The formula is therefore gift given (grace) followed by belief, love and trust, followed by the evidence of that in behaviour.

This is pretty much exactly the model which Christian theology has put forward as the model for Christian belief, extracting this from Paul’s words primarily in Romans and Galatians; receive by grace forgiveness of sin, have faith in Christ, proceed in the path of sanctification by acting out that faith. OK, some say “believe and you will be saved”, putting belief first, with considerable scriptural authority, but it is just possible that Calvin was right, and that the ability to do that is given by grace (and I say that as someone for whom the name “Calvin” is near to swearing…); the logic is that to believe first is an action, and no action can be sufficient in the hard linefaith not works” climate of Reformed theology.

I don’t remotely espouse that; I take Jesus as having confirmed that he came to save everyone. I assume the effort to have been a success. However you get there, though, it remains an act of grace, unmerited and not earned. As does the election of the descendants of Abraham and Jacob as the chosen people…

To deny that is, I think, adding insult to injury following the lamentable history of Christianity’s treatment of the Jews.

On analysis, I come to the conclusion that the only substantive difference between Paul’s position and that of the Judaism of the time is that whereas Judaism asked for faith in God’s promise to Abraham, evidenced by following the covenant given to Moses, Paul asks for faith in God’s promise via Christ Jesus, evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit. Where Paul appears dead set against following kosher rules and circumcision, it isn’t because this is damaging as such, it’s because it shouldn’t be regarded as either something which is necessary or as something which “buys” justification in God’s eyes.

So, why do the LDS like the passage so much? Well, I might suggest that it’s because they also have a large body of rules and regulations which they follow. It’s not uncommon to find fundamentalist and evangelical Christians criticising them also as being a religion of “works justification”. Maybe so, maybe not – let’s look at my second problem with a negative view of actions.

Actions do, of course, proverbially speak louder than words. Paul himself considers that works will naturally flow from accepting Christ, and James suggests, entirely rightly, that “faith without works is dead”. Indeed, it is probably not unreasonable to suggest that whatever you may say you believe, what you actually believe is evidenced by what you do.

There’s more, however. There is now plenty of psychological literature to back up the proposal that acting as if you believe something has a tendency to produce a change in beliefs to match the actions; the “act as if” principle is a major cornerstone of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. In Twelve Step, a common catch phrase is “You’ve got to fake it to make it”, and curiously that does seem to work, not in a guaranteed way, but as at least a strong tendency.

Returning to Judaism, but modern Judaism this time, I find from long discussions with Jewish friends, of whichever flavour (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist) that the long list of things which one is expected to do or not to do in order to be faithfully Jewish are, firstly, looked on very much as expressions of faith (I love God, God commands that I do this, so I do it as an expression of that love – very much in line with John 14:15). They are definitely not looked on as something which has to be performed in order to win favour, whether that be eternal life or something else (forgiveness of sin is not really on the radar there; there is a system within Judaism to deal with that, even absent the Temple and its sacrificial system); they are however, looked on as something which contributes to the communal good and the possible full expression of messianic hopes. Put simply, if you ignore the Law, you’re not excluded from Judaism or from God’s election of you as one of the chosen people, but you’re not a good team player and may be contributing to a losing streak for the team…

There is also substantial anecdotal evidence that actually performing these “mitzvot” (which translates better as “blessings” than as “commandments”) deepens faith in and love of God. You’d expect this, given the “act as if” principle.

So, I conclude, LDS are probably finding the same principle at work, though I’m not aware that they have quite the same view of the “not a good team player” aspect. I’d expect the same to be true of other Christian branches which stress activities (“praxis”), such as Catholics and Orthodox.

The other really popular passage to quote here is, of course, James 2:14-26, from which I quote 14 “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (from Bible Gateway NRSV). This is, of course, dear to my heart; love your neighbour is next to loving God and is the greatest practical expression of that. However, observance (praxis) which is directed purely at actions pleasing to God but not clearly having a beneficial effect on one’s neighbour is also a valid form of expressing ones love for and gratitude towards God.

There’s time for both in  my life.

 

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