A letter to my reader

Hello, thanks for reading something I’ve written, and I hope you’ve read “Witness, share, apology” as well.

Yes, I hope there’ll be more than one of you, but at the moment it’s just you and me, OK?

Now, I don’t know who you are, whether you have any faith or no faith or even if you aren’t sure which.

I don’t know if you’re some kind of twelve-stepper or not, or if you have any of the various compulsive behaviours (including addiction), psychological peculiarities or other defects of character which I may share about, whether they have their own Twelve Step programme or not.

I don’t know if you’re a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Bah’ai, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Jain, a Taoist, a Wiccan, a Pagan, a “Scientific Pagan, a Druid, a Shaman, a Practical Kabbalist, a Ritual Magician, a “Born Again Agnostic” or….. well, just because you’re not mentioned doesn’t mean I don’t mean you, and if you give me a nudge I’ll try to include you in the next version of this. As it is there, I have friends who describe themselves as each of these, and I’m pretty confident that they’ll read this sooner or later.

By “Christian” I mean you have faith in God – or at least want to – and try to follow Jesus as best you can, whatever conception you may have of what “God” means, what “Jesus” means, what “faith” means or what “follow” means. In other words, whatever “flavour” of Christianity you belong to – and if you’re a Seventh Day Adventist or a Latter Day Saint and think you’ve been missed out, I count you in Christian. I count me as Christian too, if you push me hard enough.

I don’t care about these labels. I think I mean that as an absolute statement, but if it turns out to be wrong, I am trying to move towards it as an ideal.

If you’re human, I mean to include you. I’d include anyone who wasn’t human as well, but I don’t think they’ll be reading this. You get the picture…

There is only one thing I really want to change your thinking about, and it is this. Please consider moving towards thinking of your fellow human beings more as I try to. They are all “us”, none of them are “them”.

Otherwise, don’t panic. I am not trying to convert you. On the “Art of Dharma” site, there is this quotation:-

To a man who asked to become a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama replied, “Please don’t. Stay in your own religion, and meditate.”  Further , he has stated, “It is better to stick with the wisdom traditions of one’s own land than to run from them pursuing in exotica what was under your nose all the time.”

I take his view, for the most part. If you have a belief structure and it’s working for you, use the maxim “If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it”. If you have no beliefs and it’s working for you (i.e. you’re a true agnostic, to my mind, though you may call yourself an atheist and that’s OK with me), use the same maxim. It’s possible there may still be something in what I write which is helpful to you, and I hope there is, but I’m not really writing for you. Sorry!

But if you have some beliefs and they’re not working well for you, I may have more to say (or not – I can only tell you how it is for me, and it’s up to you and, I suppose, chance whether you can find anything in my writing). Again, if you have a belief structure, I’d prefer you to be more comfortable with what you know rather than to shift wholesale; I may still have experience which is helpful. If you don’t have a belief structure, but feel a need for one, I may be talking about the one for you. Or not.  It is going to need to feel right and to help you develop faith, by which I mean love and trust, in whatever you can comfortably conceive “that thing which I tend to call God” to be.

I have a special note for you if you’re an atheist or an agnostic. I started the journey I’m on as an evangelical atheist, that’s to say I believed strongly that God didn’t exist, that the mere concept of God was pernicious and damaging and that I should try to convince everyone else of that. I then spent a significant amount of time as an agnostic, not knowing but still seeking.

And in some ways it would be fair still to regard me as an atheist (and some of my fellow Christians do); it would certainly be fair to regard me as an agnostic still, as I don’t know that any of what I believe is true, I just take positions on the balance of evidence or because they are useful to me and I can relate to them (though I have no option about faith; love and trust doesn’t get argued away easily) and there are still a fair number of the stories Christianity tells which I don’t relate to well, or sometimes at all. I know where you’re coming from. I’m on a journey, moving in a direction, and my beliefs have had to change along the way and will probably change further (though, granted, the changes recently have tended to be fairly subtle).

Please don’t get me wrong; I am very happy indeed with the belief structures I have and I think it would be really cool if you liked them too and tried them for size. For me, Christianity has the best, the most varied, the most useful stories – but to a great extent that’s because I grew up with these stories and know them better than I know other people’s. You’re not me.

I think everyone would be better off with a faith, and that their faith should be strong (as long as it doesn’t damage others or get in peoples’ faces or tell them what to do), and that some of what I’ve learned over some 45 years might help you with that. But I can’t tell you you’d be better off with more faith, as such, just that I’m convinced I am (and yes, it could easily be argued that I’m not from reading things I write about my experience; I try to signpost the points where I think there are dangers and what they are, though).

Finally, before you go further reading my witness, my share, my apologia, please be careful of one possibility. I have had people individually and sometimes collectively wanting to follow me, for me to be their leader.

Do not even think of doing this.

·         Firstly, you can’t get where I am by proxy, only by doing some things and having some experiences. You are not me, your experiences will be different, you can’t borrow mine, only find things in them which speak to your experiences and situation.

·         Secondly, I do not want to be put in the position of telling people what to do, it will embarrass me, and, within my belief structure, you should not be following me anyhow, you should be following in the direction I point. I want people to walk beside me, not behind me.

·         Lastly, I don’t want to be put in the position of having to say “no”, because that would pain me, but I would have to say no anyhow.

Bible study 103: Idolatry and eisegesis

Idolatry and eisegesis: how we should avoid them but will do them anyhow.

The second of the ten commandments (see Ex. 20:4-6 , Lev. 26:1 and Deut.  5:8-10) prohibits idols: ““You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” from Exodus. Now, Christianity doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the succeeding passages of Exodus (Ex. 21-31) or the linked provisions of Lev. 11-26:2, but we seem to have retained “the ten”. At least in theory.

Because, actually, most flavours of Christianity do make images; of Jesus, rather less of God the Father and very occasionally the odd dove. We run a huge risk of directing our worship towards these pictures or statues, both of which I think qualify as “graven images”, rather than towards what lies behind them. In that context, the Eastern Orthodox church attitude to icons unsettles me, as does the Catholic attitude to statues of saints and Mary mother of God.

However, what are we doing when we form concepts of what God actually is? I suggest that we’re making a kind of internal “graven image”, particularly if we think in pictures. Peter Rollins in How (Not) to Speak of God says “[N]aming God is never really naming God but only naming our understanding of God. To take our ideas of the divine and hold them as if they correspond to the reality of God is thus to construct a conceptual idol built from the materials of our mind.”

Now there are several passages in the Bible which suggest extremely strongly that any concept of God we have is inadequate. I can think of Isa. 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord”, the celebrated 1 Cor. 13:12 “For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face” and John 1:8 “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Incidentally, I do not read this passage as contradicting either Isaiah or Paul, but best read in the light of both).

 I’m reminded of the humorous comment “God made man in his image, and ever since that man has been returning the compliment” (I can’t find an attribution). This is mainly considered to target anthropomorphising God, of which examples are thinking of God as a guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud dispensing judgment on people (the picture I tended to glean from my early Sunday School experience) or as a sort of superhero writ large, with POWERS, dashing around and righting wrongs in response to prayer. I have even more difficulty with a concept of God which can be reduced to a guy who wears his knickers outside his tights than I do with the old bearded chap. Rom. 1:22-23 deals with this “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles”.

But it can be any image of God. Any concept of God. It’s a form of idolatry. The Catholic Encyclopaedia has this to say:- “Now, the human mind, when sufficiently ripe to receive the notion of God, is already stocked with natural imagery in which it clothes the new idea. That the limited mind of man cannot adequately represent, picture, or conceive the infinite perfection of God, is self-evident. If left to his own resources, man will slowly and imperfectly develop the obscure notion of a superior or supreme power on which his well-being depends and whom he can conciliate or offend.” The vast set of quotations at “A Puritan’s Mind” come to the same conclusion – and if Catholicism and Puritanism can agree on something , I may not have to work harder! (I don’t, incidentally, agree with other conclusions in either article; I have a different template of interpretation than theirs).

But then, how can our human minds relate to God at all unless we have some mental concept of Him? I certainly can’t; I acknowledge that most of the time I work with a panentheist concept of God, which is the only concept I can get my head round which reasonably fits my personal, spiritual, emotional experience of God.

I go further. For us to formulate a concept of God, we must limit Him; we must say “he is like this” or “in this situation he will do this” or “his character is this and therefore…”. I think that is a part of what idolatry is pointing at, it is an attempt to set ourselves above God, to be able to control Him (“if we do this then God must do that”). I have to acknowledge that all ( or almost all) of us want certainty – though Rational Chris is able to do without certainty, Emotional Chris can’t be persuaded to let go of it, and the totality of Chris would not be human were this not the case. It seems to me an inbuilt human interest to seek control, and a wish for certainty has to be part of this (having suffered from chronic anxiety for a significant number of years and lived through a period, also of some years, during which virtually no aspect of my future was predictable in any sensible way, I can particularly relate to this).

This should not in any way be taken to indicate that the individual most referred to quality of God in the whole of the Bible, namely God’s love for humanity, both individually and collectively, is in any way limited. The Torah attests to God’s love, particularly for a chosen people. The prophets attest to God’s love for Israel in particular and humanity in general, Ezekiel to his love for humanity individually. The Psalms attest to all three of these frequently. Jesus attests to God’s love, particularly for the individual, in the sayings from the gospels which are undisputedly his (even by the Jesus Seminar), the remaining contents of the gospels which represent the developing experience of the post-resurrection Christ among several communities of Jesus’ followers and Paul attest to God’s love, particularly for the individual and for the body of Jesus’ followers. The strongest individual experience of God consistently throughout has been his love for us. Rob Bell delivers a passionate account and invitation from the heart (not from systematic theology) in “Love Wins”. I would prefer to hear this spoken, acted by him rather than read it, as I’m sure it was conceived, but I have that in my mind’s eye while writing this.

Reconciling that experience with the existence of pain, suffering and evil in the world is a question of Theodicy (why bad things happen in the simplest terms), and I’ll address it elsewhere. Whole books have been written on it, whole libraries worth of books.


I didn’t just have the word “idolatry” in the title, but also “eisegesis”. This is the practice of interpreting scripture with presuppositions, i.e. expecting it to show you something. It is contrasted with “exegesis”, which to me in the broader sense means allowing scripture to speak to me without expecting any particular thing from it. If you follow that link, I think that “Revealed Exegesis” is poor exegesis, as it presupposes that the text is throughout divinely inspired such as to convey a divine revelation, not just in the individual passages but in the Bible as a whole.

I link this with idolatry because both involve imposing our concepts on something which we need to accept for what it actually is and experience as such without our interference.

In order to be an “equal opportunity offender” I also think some aspects of the work of historical-critical scholars can be criticised in exactly the same way. Taking the work of the Jesus Seminar  (notorious among mainline-to-conservative Christians), as an example, these kinds of methods have been severely criticised by many people. It is quite hard to find a readily available unbiased account of their methodology, and perhaps the best advice is to read Robert M. Price’s and N.T. Wright’s articles, both of which are critical of the Jesus Seminar’s assumptions for entirely valid reasons, at least to themselves. Robert Price is very much the closest of these to what I would regard as a true historical-critical perspective (if you wish to adopt such a technique) and you can see what conclusion he arrives at; Tom Wright is absolutely correct in his comments on the voting procedure and method of translating it into an aggregate colour (Red, pink, grey or black depending on the decreasing degree of certainty with which sayings or actions are assumed to be those of Jesus). The system was irredeemably flawed, as he says. The Wikipedia entry (which I consider reasonably fair and unbiased but extremely incomplete) seems to me to give a reasonably fair account.

Just one point I need to mention. In Tom Wright’s critique, I think he is absolutely correct in saying that in a story-telling culture, which I accept was the case in rural Palestine at the time (though not in towns and cities), stories rather than just aphorisms are transmitted readily. What he doesn’t advert to (and I don’t think he adverts to enough in his other writings) is the fact that those stories get amended seriously in order to give extra flavour, to convey the story-teller’s point of view and to suit a particular audience. He isn’t going to get all that much closer to “authentic Jesus” by taking this into account. But definitely closer.

I have to concede that the eventual 74 scholars who stayed with the project to the end do not include a lot of heavyweight biblical scholars who might have been there, though as Tom Wright admits, the list of members includes some of the most respected biblical scholars in the world. However, reference to Westar’s criteria for membership seems to indicate that anyone with a PhD or equivalent in religious studies or a related field could have been involved, the membership of the seminar started at 150 and there have been some 200 actually involved. Although it has to be said that this would have opened the way for conservative scholars to “pack” the Seminar, the criteria of the Seminar (see the Wikipedia link) could not have been honestly accepted by any significantly conservative scholar. It is therefore not surprising that so many “black” entries appear.

That would not necessarily matter if the criteria were entirely without prejudgment, but Tom Wright is in general correct in criticising those (I don’t agree with a fair number of his points, though). As can be seen from Robert Price’s comments, however, they can also be attacked for prejudgment from the other extreme of interpretation (and Price is far closer to what I would expect from an historian with no religious or non-religious leaning, if anyone fitting that description can be found).

That is the real historical-critical method.

The base problem with that is that it excludes any possibility of there being any supernatural force or occurrence absolutely, including miracles, prophecy and supernatural entities other than God (in which I include angels and demons), which is a presupposition, and as Tom Wright states, tilts the scales of objectivity.

After all, this technique is used widely in studying ancient literature of other cultures, in which that possibility is always excluded. Without the presupposition that the Bible is special, if you accept the supernatural in the Bible, you also have to accept the supernatural in a very large amount of other ancient literature. The result would be fantastically different from the picture of the ancient world which historians have built up. It is frankly not worth making the effort to do this; the result would be so ludicrous as to convince most people very rapidly that the method was, in fact, faulty in taking these things into account.

I am not necessarily saying that we need to abandon this principle. However, if you eliminate accounts which have some supernatural event completely, you ignore the fact that all the evidence is that the people of the time did not think along the same lines that we do, and felt it entirely natural and indeed right to invent stories showing the importance of famous people; these showed their “real character”, you might say. Thus, an account including supernatural elements might (even if there is not in fact some non-supernatural explanation for it having happened which would be interpreted by the people of the time rationally) actually be eyewitness and have substantial truth to it – it just wouldn’t evidence a miracle.

I am also not absolutely ready to abandon the possibility that some supernatural events do occur, purely on the basis that although the overwhelming preponderance of accounts of such events have proved to me personally and to a lot of debunkers of the supernatural to have a naturalistic explanation (sadly, many of the modern ones involving deliberate fraud), there are things which have happened to me and to people whose accounts I really trust for which, to say the least, a naturalistic explanation even if present is very unsatisfactory.

Now, I hope that I’ve shown from the above that I myself try to be as untainted by presuppositions as I possibly can; only that way can I allow the text to speak to me rather than first putting on a set of distorting glasses and then reading. I started this process having a nearly completely scientific-rationalist and historical-critical stance and at a point where all my instincts were to use an atheist presupposition but I had one piece of personal experience which told me that presumption was wrong.

It may come as a surprise to readers, but the vast bulk of my conclusions were then reached from an only very slightly modified (as above) historical-critical stance and through reading the Bible itself in multiple translations, and applying the forensic techniques learned by any lawyer who has spent a reasonable amount of time in court to seek the nearest approach to the truth as possible. I quote other writers extensively when I can, but I tend to do this after having used my own reading technique to arrive at a working hypothesis as to the way in which the text has actually arrived at the wording it has, in order to give my conclusions some scholarly authority and in order, to some extent, to allow me not to worry at the problem further. I admit, I keep coming back to texts now having already a good working hypothesis which has already been confirmed after reading some new interpretation which seems particularly reasonable and “checking my working” as a mathematician would say.

To explain my comments about legal forensic techniques, I used to be good at taking the agreed evidence in a case and seeing how it could be explained such that my client was less guilty than might otherwise have appeared, i.e. a plea in mitigation, or even not guilty at all. I was, of course, doing this with a presupposition, namely that my client actually was in some way innocent, unlikely as it might have seen. In a defended case rather than a plea, I would sequentially argue as an exercise in my mind or with a colleague first for a guilty verdict and then for innocent, so I could do it both ways.

I make the most possible use of that technique that I can when viewing any scripture the meaning of which is debatable, and try to arrive at the result which a reasonable jury would reach given capable presentation of both sides.

I also try to learn as much as can be reasonably known about the ways of life, ways of thinking, philosophies and social structures of the milieu in which scripture was written as I can, though, so I use historical scholarship a lot more than I do scriptural scholarship before actually tackling a passage. The context is very important. Likewise, at some point I may find that my decision making may turn on the interpretation of a word, and so I go to scholars in the language used and seek a variety of possibilities.

So I’m an absolute paragon of virtue, sitting on my pedestal criticising such heavyweight scholars as Tom Wright or (for example) Robert Funk, who is close to Mr. Price’s stance and a heavyweight in Tom Wright’s class, and sneering at their faulty techniques from my total lack of formal qualification in any subject which would get me into Westar as a Fellow, am I?

Bull droppings!  I’m just as guilty as they are in the absolute sense. I wouldn’t have started the exercise of reading scripture seriously like this had I not had a presupposition; this was drawn from my own experience and F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism, a study and an anthology”. The quotations he gives from St. Paul, St. John and the Oxyrhyncus papers spoke directly to my own experience and gave me emotional certainty that all three were basically speaking of the same experience as mine, though expressed in radically different ways. I thus expected to recognise in scripture some instances of mystical experience and, where I did, to be able to say “Whatever else he may have been, the writer (in the case of Paul and John) or the one making the statements (in the case of Oxyrhyncus) has experienced this thing which I’m provisionally calling God and therefore their other statements may well be inspired as well and I should look at them very carefully”.

I also took the attitude which I used to use when cross-examining eyewitnesses (who in my experience are notoriously unreliable but almost always think they are telling the truth), and assume that all the voices seen in scripture were giving a faithful account of their understanding of things (not, of course, the same as the truth) unless I found reason to the contrary. And, as with eyewitnesses, differences in their stories were probably explained by different perspectives, different assumptions, different vocabularies and different thought processes.

I never liked conspiracy theories anyhow. I tend to assume that where there’s a choice of cockup or conspiracy, cockup is massively most likely.

And I used a kind of Lectio Divina almost from the start. As it’s not quite that described by Fr. Luke Dysinger O.S.B or, in fact, the slightly different one taught to me about ten years ago, I’ll explain it.

Taking a passage, I read through it fairly quickly to get the sense of it. I then read it aloud, putting as much “performance” into that as I can manage (if you do this, do it where others won’t be annoyed). I then read it through really slowly, taking time over each word to see if it gives me any feeling about meaning, whether positive, negative or “pardon?”.

In proper Lectio, which I still do occasionally, at that point I should meditate on it longer, pray and contemplate (which for me aren’t really a trinity, more an unity). However, in fact I tend to go and look at other resources. Is it illuminated by surrounding passages? Are there any other scriptural uses of the word which might help me? Is there any commentary on this in the Bible I’m reading (or one of the others I keep around for this reason)? Do any of these give me a new insight? If not, I meditate on it a bit longer and possibly write a note to come back to it later, and then move on to repeat the exercise on the next word which produces some feedback in me. And so on…

This can be an extremely time consuming way of doing things. I find it brings a lot of insight.

And, for me, it makes up somewhat for the fact that I’m not really a scholar in any of the applicable fields (except in the sense of having definitely spent over 10,000 hours working in this way, not that I expect this to impress anyone much), I’m not a working pastor or indeed anything beyond a largely solitary contemplative.

Oh, and I do find that when I later read Marcus Borg’s take on something, I almost always seem to have come up with the same answers, though often for slightly different reasons. My working hypothesis is that he has exactly the same kind of experiences as I do.

So, do you have any presuppositions? Guess what I expect the answer to be. Do you maybe think that you might get a fresh and interesting view of scripture if you didn’t?

Well, that’s very very difficult. I can’t do it. As far as I can see Tom Wright can’t do it either, though he clearly tries. The best I can suggest is to examine how you read scripture and ask yourself very seriously what the process you use is and what you expect to find there. At least then you might be able to pause a moment and say “How much did I prejudge this? and see if you can then get a slightly different perspective.

Alternatively (and a lot easier), make sure you read several views from different stances and try to accept all of them as being as faithful as they can be.

Vade retro, Satanas (Alpha week 6)

The snag turned out to be, when I got there, that this wasn’t actually talk 6 “How does God guide us” which I’d prepared for, but talk 10, “How can I resist evil”.

After a chat with the guest speaker beforehand (remember, I’m trying to be a constructive pain in the neck here!), he got started. And that gave me problems, because I didn’t want to tear the thing to shreds immediately.

The talk started off by following the standard line of saying “the Devil” is referenced in the Hebrew Scriptures. And he’s not. There is the serpent in Genesis, there’s the morning star/lucifer in Isaiah and there are a few references to “Satan”. The Hebrew “ha-Satan” (meaning “the accuser” or sometimes “the adversary”) has pretty much the function described in Job; he’s an agent of God, there to act as something like counsel for the prosecution, to test faith by temptation. According to Judaism, he’s absolutely nothing like a personalised force of evil and, frankly, where there doesn’t seem to be any need to look at it too closely, I’m very happy to let Judaism claim prior copyright in the Hebrew Scriptures and let Jewish scholars do the interpretation. Call it intellectual laziness or “standing on the shoulders of giants” as you like. Also according to Judaism, the serpent is ha-Satan, as he is performing a somewhat similar function, so not “the Devil”. haSatan is regarded as real, but as a servant of God (hence permission being asked and given in Job).

Lucifer, in Isaiah, is a translation of the Hebrew words which indicate “morning star”, and this passage specifically refers to a king of Babylon. So, also not the Devil. (From this point, if I wasn to indicate the Jewish conception, I will use “haSatan”, otherwise if I use Satan it means the Intertestamental/Christian conception.

Yes, the New Testament concept is more like our current ideas of “The Devil”, and it doesn’t derive from the Hebrew “ha-Satan”, it derives from the intertestamental literature, Hebrew writings from between the Hebrew Scriptures and the time of the new Testament, notably the Book of Wisdom and the Second Book of Enoch. Wisdom is part of the apocrypha, i.e. it appears in the Catholic Bible but not in Protestant Bibles; it was part of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) but is not part of the TaNaKh (the Judaic Hebrew Scriptures). Enoch is usually regarded as pseudepigrapha (generally a polite term for “fake”) but is accepted as canonical by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Both of these are quoted in the New Testament.

There is an immediate problem here for those who are not Catholic or from the two small Orthodox churches mentioned; that is that the concepts which become quoted in the New Testament are themselves not canonical; the church fathers, in other words, thought that they were unreliable.

There is a much bigger problem, though, and that is that one of the probable reasons they are not canonical in most of Christianity or in Judaism is that they are considered to do two things, one being to introduce a tendency to gnosticism, the other being to be heavily tainted by Zoroastrian thinking. Zoroastrian is a dualist religion with equal opposing good and evil Gods (Ahura Mazda and Ahriman or Angra Mainyu). The Zoroastrian concept of Ahriman is quite similar to the concept of the Devil in the New Testament, and I think transmission of this idea is a certainty.

Judaism is an ardently monotheistic religion, and in theory so is Christianity (arguments about the Trinity set on one side here). Zoroastrianism is not.

Some time ago, I wrote “If the Devil existed, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”. The theological reason for this is that I am a panentheist, and in this conception there is just no room in metaphysics for a second force; I could point out that if we believe in omnipresence (and panentheism is to a great extent an extreme and literal assertion of omniscience) then, if there were an “evil god”, then God would permeate him as well. Also, the presence of an opposing force of real power limits the conventional belief in God’s omnipotence and, in order to function with any actual power at all, his omniscience. God stops being almighty, and whatever you say about God having the final victory, this has to be the case. In any event, I cannot read Isaiah 45:7 “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all of these things” (KJV) and not consider that there is direct biblical authority for there not being any creator whether of good or evil than God. Yes, you will find the word “ra-ah” in Hebrew translated by all sorts of words other than “evil” in other, later, translations, for instance “woe” in the RSV, but it is impossible to get away from a very strong connotation of evil and still preserve the meaning of the original.

And as has happened earlier in the course, they have to quote C.S. Lewis. Lewis was an amateur theologian only, his academic background lay elsewhere and he was best known as a novelist and poet. How it is that Lewis has become the theologian of choice for Alpha beats me, because I have never encountered a C.S. Lewis quote used in this kind of situation which is not theologically unsound and/or logically false. In this case, Lewis claims there are two mistakes to make, disbelief and unhealthy interest. I agree with him on the second, but not, as you can see above, the first. I’ll deal with this more later.

In the questions at the end of the main discussion, what I then made was the point that a “real Satan” was untrue to the Jewish monotheist tradition from start, and introduced the real risk of a slide into complete dualism. However, I said I agree that if you the New Testament references metaphorically and referring to inner forces, then I find little to argue with. There was quite a bit of agreement.

At the discussion later, reference was made to Paul’s use of the term “God of this age”, also rendered “God of this world”, but I didn’t have an opportunity to address it. This is even more dangerous terminology as it can easily be read to indicate actual dualism, and also to support a gnostic concept of the material world being incurably bad, annd the only good to be reached post-mortem. It’s beyond the scope of what I’m writing here to say more than that gnosticism was thoroughly disliked by the early Church Fathers (this is Irenaeus’ position) and led to the non-inclusion in the canon of the New Testament of the Gnostic Gospels. (There is one of those, the Gospel of Thomas, which I regret not being included, on the grounds that firstly it’s the only pure “sayings” gospel I’ve read, secondly that it contains the one scripture which most persuaded me that Jesus was to be followed, “I am the light that shines over all things. I am everything. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.” (Tho. 77) and thirdly that if it’s gnostic at all, it’s less gnostic than John, on which very much Christian doctrine is based).

I didn’t mention, but will note here that when taken metaphorically, the New Testament references to Satan or cognates encourage a form of exteriorisation of our own baser urges. There can be psychological benefits to this (which I why I agree the metaphorical interpretation is worthwhile) but there are also some significant psychological dangers, particularly in persons with mental illnesses or psychological disorders; I would recommend that this kind of concept is not used by anyone with such a mental health background without the utmost of care.

Firstly, it is an unfortunate fact that the more you stress the reality of something “bad” and stress it’s power, the more attractive you tend to make it. If it’s powerless and/or imaginary, it isn’t attractive. Put very briefly, I can speak from personal experience, as though by around age 9 I was atheistic as far as God was concerned, all things occult fascinated me, and even after I lost any serious interest in those as a possible way of getting power, I remained interested on an academic level until my 20’s. The detail of this must wait for another day, but suffice it to say that I have personal experience of some aspects and have past or current friends who actually practice in various areas.

It is the case that we now live in a scientific-rationalist society, and science has ostensibly left no room for there to be any supernatural element in the church. No miracles, no prophecy, no healing; all are scientifically impossible. (Yes, there are a few studies indicating there may be some minuscule benefit to prayer, but they’re much attacked). This has had, and still gets, a big press, and no, I don’t think that that’s because atheists, science or the press are agents of Satan; it’s because the church has historically got itself an extremely bad name (and parts of it continue to) and it’s therefore a large and popular target. On the other hand, although science has been equally used to debunk every supposed supernatural event from the wide field of the occult, that isn’t so unpopular, and it has the cachet of being “a bit naughty”, and after all, everyone looks at their horoscope in the papers, don’t they?

I’m not saying that guarantees a slide into eventual Satanism (and I remind you that Satanism is firmly based on Paul’s “God of this world” statement), but if someone believes in any kind of “magic”, other kinds become easier to look for.

This Wikipedia article on magic isn’t too inadequate or unbalanced. Neither is this on Wicca or this on Freemasonry. Aside from pointing out that Wicca is a religion rather than specifically an occult practice and that due to Christianity’s past history, there is a saying in Wicca “never more the burning times”, these are mostly harmless, and scare articles in some Christian sources which I’ve actually investigated have always proved to have some non-supernatural explanation but some deplorable human behaviour. Again, that’s a big subject and one I may come back to.

However, some occult practices and those who use and pursue them are extremely capable of messing with people’s heads, so I urge caution. Mind you, that can be said of some branches of Christianity and even, dare I say it, Alpha (which one atheist friend of mine is convinced is a form of brainwashing). Ho hum

Witnessing and sharing

What I am writing here is, in bits, my witness, my apologia, my main share.

Dealing with the last things first (the first shall be last in the Kingdom of Heaven) I am a member of a Twelve Step programme and have been for something like 10 years, I suppose, though I only started to take the programme seriously in late 2006. What I write here is not, however, primarily about any particular twelve step programme or even about twelve step programmes generally.

A bit about Twelve step programmes

I am not writing for twelve step members, so if you are a twelve stepper you can probably skip this bit. However, I am a member of a twelve step programme and probably qualify for at least three others (I’ve only been to actual meetings of one of those), and it has been important in forming the way I think about some things, so you need to know where I am coming from.

In Twelve Step programmes, there is a practice called a “main share”. This involves a member giving a short  account of their life with reference to the programme, and frequently takes the form of sharing their “Experience, strength and hope”.  Another way of putting it is “What I was like, what happened, and what I am like now”. Often this takes place at the beginning of a meeting in which other members will in turn share more briefly aspects of their own experience strength and hope which have been brought to their attention by something they heard in the main share.

Members are expected to listen politely and attentively to each others and not to interrupt, nor in general to argue with other members, though they can (and often do) pick up a difference and share that for them, it was like this.

They are encouraged to listen attentively and to listen especially for similarities, not differences, and in that way they may be helped to understand their own situation or to remember something in their own past which has brought them to where they are.

Twelve step states that it is not a religious programme, it is a spiritual programme, but in it are a number of references to “God”. Some of them add the words “as you understand him”, and step 2 reads “Came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity”. Twelve step programmes are all based on overcoming some problem of addiction or compulsion (there are quite a few variants), and this addiction or compulsion is thought to involve a form of insanity which needs to be removed.

People will share that a variety of things have been sufficient as a “higher power”, including in some cases the AA group itself, in other cases the concept of “Good”, or “Good orderly direction” (G.O.D.) You are entirely free to choose whatever concept works for you, as long as it does work – and you can change your mind about what concept you use, as many members do.

In fact, the first twelve step programme (Alcoholic Anonymous, on which all the others are more or less closely based) made use of the programme developed by the Oxford Group, which was at least initially an evangelical Christian movement. However, AA saw that a specific religious affiliation was unhelpful to it’s one and only purpose, which was to help alcoholics to recover, and adjusted its thinking and wording accordingly, and there are now AA members of very many religions and of no religion, including atheists.

I think it possible that St. Paul’s “thorn in the side” was an addiction or compulsion. Certainly the way he writes about it fits well with it being something like that. I certainly view myself as having a number of thorns in my own side. If you read all of what I write, you’ll probably work out what at least one of them is, maybe more. But I am not writing about my recovery either, except insofar as that is part of my experience and has given me part of my strength and part of my hope.

A bit about witness

What I write is also my witness, my statement of my faith in something I call ”God”, and in Jesus Christ (as I understand him to have talked and acted and been), and in the transformative power of that faith. I use the word “faith” to indicate more “love and trust” than belief in its normally understood form. In the faith tradition I work within, it is encouraged to witness to others, and that I try to do wherever it is reasonable. As such it is technically “evangelical”, but again not in the way that word is commonly understood these days. I do not approve of “in your face” evangelism in any form; if you have a faith, I agree with the Dalai Lama, who said to someone who had talked with him and been inspired by his words, and asked if he should therefore consider becoming a Buddhist “No, go and become a better Christian”.


An apologia is a rational justification of someone’s beliefs. Mostly, it is rationalisation after the fact. In other words, I didn’t get the faith I have by justifying it rationally, but it helps me to maintain that faith if I can defend the beliefs I have against anyone saying that what I believe is wrong, it gives me a basis on which I can ground an attempt to construct a better reason if someone does manage to demonstrate that something I believe is wrong, and it helps to convince my rational mind that what my emotional mind is saying to me in this particular instance is acceptable.

I’m actually a bit sceptical that anyone else gets to faith (as opposed to belief) by a process of rational argument either. The discipline of “Apologetics” often seems to me to be designed to convince other people by rational argument, but actually I think it doesn’t do that very well, or possibly even at all. My own experience and that of other people I’ve talked with seems to indicate that this is right, but I’m always open to hearing new evidence.

However, I’ve been helped a lot in the past by reading people explaining how they rationalised their own beliefs. This teaches me about them, it teaches me about the processes of rationalisation and it helps me do my own rationalisation. I’ll admit that it more often does the latter by making me think about why I don’t believe the same things they do, but occasionally it makes me adjust my beliefs.

I don’t hold any beliefs which I am so attached to that they can’t be changed in the light of new evidence or some challenge to my rationalisation, I do have a faith (love and trust) which I don’t think can be changed.


I hope that when reading what I write here you can take it in the sense of a twelve step main share. I am always glad to have people share back to me their own stories, and if your reasoning disagrees with some of my own reasoning, I’m open to discussion. But it isn’t going to be productive if you say “This is not what I (my church, whatever other form of authority you use) says is the case, so you’re wrong”. That is their witness, their main share. It isn’t mine.

Two views, one fire.

On Sunday, I met with a friend. Now, this guy is fired up with God, with Jesus and with scripture. And that’s all good. It’s better than good, it’s warming those he comes into contact with. I am really happy for him. He’s also fired up with a completely different view of scripture from my own. A different concept of God, a different concept of Jesus… I could go on.

We acknowledged to each other that we are in two completely different places (he reads my blog, bless him) but that we share one faith, one fire. He’s been used to my own fire being somewhat damped (I suffer from clinical depression, inter alia, and have done for quite a few years), but on Sunday, courtesy of some new medication, I was not feeling damped.

Now, I’m confident that as we were acknowledging that to each other, both of us were thinking with at least part of our minds “I’m in the better place, and you’ll eventually join me there”. I can’t see that happening myself, and I’ve no doubt that he can’t see himself joining me in my thinking. But we are one in love, we are one in spirit, we are one in religion (even, at the moment, denomination), we are one in whom we follow.

I think I see how there can be one church. I know there should be only one church, of all the followers of Christ (as a minimum). At my last count, however, there were several thousand denominations, and I found that depressing, particularly when one flavour of follower of Jesus shuns, anathematises or kills another flavour of follower.

We are very different. And we are exactly the same.

Foolish virgins.

Went to my second service of the day this afternoon, and heard a sermon on Matt. 24:36 -25:12. This was an evangelical Anglican Church, and I expected and got a theologically neo-conservative sermon.

All the individual parts of this reading refer to not knowing the time and place (and this refers back to the apocalyptic vision starting at Matt. 24:1). The message was, therefore, that the time of the return of (variously) the Christ or the Son of Man could not be predicted, and we were urged to be like the wise virgins who kept back some of their lamp oil and were therefore ready for the feast of “the bridegroom” as opposed to the foolish virgins who had used all of theirs; they asked the wise virgins for more and were rejected, as the wise virgins might then not have enough for themselves, and while going out to buy more, the bridegroom arrived, the festivities started and the foolish virgins were locked out. We didn’t want to be like the foolish virgins and not be ready, and therefore condemned to eternal separation from God.

We should be ready not just because the apocalyptic end (“heaven and earth passing away” may come, but also because some of us may die before that time and at that point we will be judged, and if we are not ready, potentially in Hell.

The preacher hastened to say that the message was not primarily of threat, but of the hope given that following Jesus would bring us to the Kingdom of Heaven instead.

And yet… I have no quarrel with the preacher’s last two points (about which I’ll say more later), but there I was, sitting in the back of the pews, with part of my mind constructing alternatives. This is not at all uncommon with me; my regular vicar seems to have sort of got used to me raising a couple of extra points or a slanting interpretation after the service and not to mind me doing that. I wouldn’t normally do more than that, but I’m in the middle of writing a piece about reading, interpreting and studying scripture, and here I have a ready made example. If he sees this, I hope the preacher will forgive me!

OK, the first thing I note is that historical-critical analysis considers that the parable in that passage (and several other nearby ones which the preacher relied on) are quite likely to be the words of Jesus unmodified by the author, but that the apocalyptic surroundings are most likely to have been inserted by the author, and therefore to be indicative not of Jesus’ actual words but of the understanding Matthew had reached of Jesus and his importance at the time of writing of the gospel.  (Historical-critical analysis tends to accept parables and similar statements as the “true voice” of Jesus and ascribe other statements to authorly fleshing out of the story). Assuming for a moment that the significant number of scholars who place the bones of Matthew sometime between 60CE and 100CE are correct, I consider from the evidence of Papias that the earliest possible date was around 95, so we have a small window.

The circumstances then were that in the late 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, messianic fervour in Israel had been high. The nation hoped to be rescued from Roman domination by a messiah predicted in many places in the Hebrew Scriptures (testified to in Josephus, inter alia). The Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and the heart ripped out of Judaism. It is clear from the whole tenor of the gospel of Matthew that the writer was certain that Jesus was the promised messiah and that the messiah as predicted everywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures was a single person (still the position of both Judaism and Christianity, but see my thoughts on this), and also that he would have been aware that Jesus had not fulfilled quite a few of the messianic prophecies (the Jewish attitude to the messianic properties considers, for instance, that the messiah will gather the Jews into Palestine, restore all Jews to full observance of the Law and bring peace to the whole world

It would follow that Jesus needed to come back and complete the job. Enter the kind of apocalyptic vision familiar from earlier Hebrew writing. This is Matthew’s vision, not in Jesus’ thinking according to historical-critical technique, and as with all apocalyptic literature of the time, historical-critical thinking views it as talking of the times you are in and offering a vision of the future from that perspective (as a criticism) rather than as being prophecy. My own view modifies this slightly; I do not wholly rule out the possibility that a statement might actually be prophetic, though there is no way to know if it is true until after the event (some prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures do not in fact come true, often because God is said to change his mind), but even if it is, it must also speak to the times.

So we are primarily talking of Matthew’s own times, not about the future.

But there’s more. Actually the parable is a Kingdom statement, prefaced with “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared with…”. Clearly, the wise maidens are going to be in the Kingdom of Heaven, the foolish virgins are not. But when is this? Well, helpfully, this occurs just after the statement “this generation will not pass away till all these things take place”. I think I establish in my Kingdom Sermon of 10 years ago that Jesus was telling us that the Kingdom was already there – within you, among you, there before all present would die. So, in fact, that generation, which was all dead a very long time ago, did not pass away before the arrival of the Kingdom; it was already there, at least for some.

I see my own first peak spiritual experience as having been, effectively, entering into the Kingdom. The full effect was brief, but ever since I have felt that I had “one foot in” the Kingdom. I can therefore witness that one of the features of this was an immediate conviction of a very large number of things I had previously done wrong or was doing wrong – a conviction of sin, if you like. And it crept up on me, as the preacher also quoted, “like a thief in the night”. With it, however, was an equal conviction of being forgiven, accepted, and the will given to resolve to do differently in the future (which I think agrees broadly with the picture given by Ezekiel 18 in the Hebrew Scriptures; repent and turn to God’s ways). This is, I think, grace; it surely wasn’t remotely deserved on the first occasion and hasn’t been subsequently either, when the same process has occurred.

It has been painful, fortunately briefly, and without the force of that immediate feeling of forgiveness the resulting guilt and shame could be sufficient to prevent someone from feeling forgiveness, and feeling and therefore being separated from God. I have heard quite a few people witness to me of feeling like that, despite having otherwise at least the outline of a similar experience, and I have had an extended period in which I felt no contact with God at all and, whatever amends I made, however I tried to improve my spiritual practice and reestablish that contact, could not shake shame and guilt. All I had was faith, frequent repentance and as good an adherence to Jesus’ Great Commandments as I could manage. Supposedly that’s enough, being as prepared as possible, but it hasn’t felt that way. Frankly, it’s felt like Hell, and I’m not at all sure I mean that as a figure of speech.

That is what I know we can be saved from during our lifetimes. After death, I have no idea. My experience also delivers me the conviction that on death I will be one with God (in all persons of the Trinity), and no indication at all that in that I am any way different from other people as regards that. I note, though, that Paul says that Jesus came to save everyone without exception (Rom. 5:18-19). In Col. 1:19-20 is ” For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”. No exceptions. God is, after all, loving.

I do not know the mechanism (I would like to think of a new opportunity to accept just after death when, after all, we will be seeing not as through a glass darkly but face to face, but have no supporting scripture for that), but the Theologia Germanica says “Nothing burns in Hell save self-will, therefore it has been said “Put off thy self-will, and there will be no Hell” (quoted from F.C. Happold: “Mysticism”). That will do for me; the preacher suggested putting off self-will in favour of following Jesus, and despite arriving from a different direction, so do I.

However, there’s more; if I am right in the above, the foolish virgins will get their opportunity in the future. They’re missing a feast now, not an eternity of no feasts. However, I worry about the “wise virgins”. The preacher interpreted their refusal to share the lamp oil as not being able to get into the Kingdom on someone’s shirt tails. But in the parable, if they’d shared, all ten virgins would have got in to the feast, though they might have ended up more dimly lit.

There the simile may be breaking down. There are things we can share without losing anything ourselves; the gospel, our experiences and above all love. We should not withhold these from others because we may not have enough for ourselves. I could picture Jesus adding after Matt. 25:39 “I was in darkness, and you gave me no light”. A primary part of the Kingdom must be love, and we can think of the parable of the mustard seed in Matt. 13:31-32, a pervasive weed which spreads.

Feel love, show love, share love (you will have no less love as a result) and it will spread, and with it the Kingdom.

Now, I was going to use this as an example for a later post in my Bible Study series, but that might be a bit delayed due to the overload of inspiration which I am currently feeling. Thus I want to clarify what the message behind this actually is.

I think the preacher had exactly the right inspiration (i.e. the guiding of the Spirit) but was seriously hampered in following it by being obliged by various factors to use the standard Penal Substitutionary Atonement model, the seriously modified later understanding of Hell as real and not as metaphorical and similarly many “sheep and goats” type statements, which to me are story-telling forms of rebuke (eminentaly justified) rather than attempts to say that people will be permanently excluded upon death. There are other atonement theories which he could have used (not mine!) and it’s a pity that in order to make the points the Spirit was urging him towards, he had to leave hanging a nasty implication and rather skate over it’s implications. In other words, the preacher had exactly the right idea (probably via inspiration), but some of his theology was giving him problems arguing to that conclusion, and for some reason I don’t know, he felt unable to marshal some other, more compatible theological framework.

I’ve added this largely because a kind lady yesterday listening to me use this as an example (as intended) pointed out that I might have been criticising the preacher. I’m not – he made a wonderful job of it with which I agreed, but working from some really substandard material which he had been supplied with. Love the preacher, hate his theology…

Bible study 102 – methods and groups

As it happened, a lot of the discussion on Wednesday revolved round a feature of “How should I read the Bible” which I hadn’t considered. There were two people in our discussion group who had serious difficulty with reading, one who thinks more in pictures than words, and one who goes beyond that – she didn’t manage to read a whole book until she was 32, and spoke of needing a whole range of sensory input to grasp something.

I don’t have difficulty reading text. I could read before I went to school at 5, courtesy of demanding of my mother to learn about this fascinating stuff and showing that I could recognise some simple words before anyone had thought to teach me letters (my mother still likes to talk of her shock when, from a pram, I pointed at a sign and said “dat says ‘Esso’ “). The local primary school headmaster was consulted, and said I was obviously ready and suggested a set of books which my mother then used to teach me. By the time I was 11, I was reading not only my own three library books a week, but also the additional six my parents borrowed, whatever they were. I used to read after going to bed, usually by getting on the other side of the bedroom curtains and using the light from a nearby street light, once my parents wised up and made sure I couldn’t steal a torch so as to read under the bedcovers. I used to have nearly photographic memory for text (nothing like the case any more). I am probably addicted to reading; if there is nothing else to read at the breakfast table, I will read and reread the backs of cereal packets.

If you don’t have a problem yourself, you tend not to think that others may have it. Mea culpa! However, as in what follows, although I am myself primarily a text-based learner and student, there are other ways of study which I find helpful, and I can therefore learn from other’s experience and hope to give something from my own which may help them.

There was discussion around making up a set of images to accompany favorite texts (a scrapbook of these was shown) and using Childrens’ or other illustrated Bibles, and audio books.

However, this led to me having (and sharing with her) an insight from my own experience. If I’m studying a passage seriously, and particularly if I’m using “lectio divina”, I make a point of reading it aloud at least once, with feeling, which gives you both audio and a feeling of “ownership”. I’ve acted in quite a few scripturally based amateur drama productions, which gives you another dimension or two (expression and movement). On one occasion, however, in auditions for a part in the York Mystery Plays a few years ago, we were asked to improvise around a scene (actually, the crucifixion, as it was the Butchers’ play). Having to think ones self into the character of one of the participants as well as all the rest gave an entirely new slant for all of us. I hope this will prove to have been some help.

I suppose that ends up as a sort of externalised version of Ignatian Visualisatory prayer, combined with a kind of Bible Study group. That is, of course, as well as being a form of prayer, a seriously productive way of studying the Bible!

Groups are another wonderfully productive way of reading and studying the Bible for me. I tend to be fizzing with more ideas than I could express in the time provided after one – and that brings me to an aside. My memory used to be very good, and I didn’t tend to note down thoughts and intuitions as they came to me; now it isn’t nearly so good, but I’ve not developed the good habit of keeping a notebook in which to write these down as they come to me. Not only does that make sure I won’t forget them, or forget that I’ve got that memory somewhere if I looked for it (a slightly different thing) but it also reinforces the thought. When studying seriously, writing things down helps me a lot. So I should do more of it, and maybe others will find this useful as well.

Why am I fizzing with ideas? Well, other people have different thoughts and intuitions from my own, however deeply I may be studying by myself. If I’m talking about scripture or religion more generally, I tend to get more out of it talking with people who don’t think like I do. This is in one way easy, because apart from online, I’ve never come across a community of people who do think like I do. In another way, though, it’s difficult, because the very fact that I don’t think the same way as those study groups which have historically been available to me means either that I can’t share many of the thoughts or intuitions I am actually getting or that I run the risk that someone is going to have part of their thinking radically challenged.

This has in the past resulted in me being asked to leave a Bible study group, and on occasion to accusations that I’m guided by evil spirits, am a mouthpiece of Satan or even that I’m the Antichrist (a promotion I really don’t deserve). While I don’t much like this (English understatement here), more seriously it’s led in the past on a number of occasions to someone losing their faith, and I absolutely don’t want to do that, however much I may think that “an unexamined faith is not worth having” (James Luther Adams) and that ultimately faith, as opposed to belief, cannot be shaken by a challenge to belief. Faith is an emotional commitment of love and trust in God, and as such is properly immune to challenge from reason. However, it seems to me that that emotional commitment can often follow from and almost always is nurtured by a belief structure, so it is not usually a good thing to damage that structure before the emotional commitment has arisen. It may be that the love and trust was not directed at God but at a belief structure, for instance.

I would hope in the future to get round this with a group which basically accepts the twelve step approach that each can share their “experience, strength and hope” in a supportive environment where each accepts that all they can themselves share is their own “experience, strength and hope”; it may differ from mine (and I hope it does!), but everyone seeks similarities not differences and hopes that something they say will be of use to others and that something others say may be of help to them. After all, I have managed to study scripture in the past with people of other religions and none without there ending up being “more heat than light”. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

(to be continued)

Bible reading 101 and onwards… (Alpha week 5)

The title of the talk is “Why and how should I read the Bible”, mostly focussing on “why”. I have a host of answers for that, but none of them is that “It’s the Word of God” (quoting Matt. 4:4 “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God”) and is “God-breathed”, quoting 2 Tim. 3:16-17. Rendering vv. 15-17 (RSV), we see “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”.

First Matthew. Even Orthodox Judaism does not think that the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures “come from the mouth of God”, though they have a fairly high concept of inspiration.

Then the letter to Timothy. Assuming it to be genuinely written by Paul, it is talking of sacred writings which his hearers have been acquainted with from childhood, and therefore definitively the Hebrew Scriptures, not any part of the New Testament (of which Paul was the earliest writer). Christians in general do not use large swathes of the Hebrew Scriptures for reproof, correction or training in righteousness, not least the bulk of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

A defence is to quote Matthew 5:17. I’ll quote vv 17-19 here: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”The argument then goes that Jesus “fulfilled” them and that “all was accomplished” by dying and rising again.

Frankly, I don’t think that argument works. It frankly reads more naturally as all being accomplished BY heaven and earth passing away, and that Jesus’ “fulfilment” rested in his generally scandalous proposals that societal outcasts such as women, the disabled, heretics (Samaritans) and even Romans should be consorted with in table fellowship., and that the spirit of the law (in the two Great Commandments, Matt. 22:37-40) should override the letter.

Yes, I am not ignoring Paul’s ad-hoc theologising in Romans. Frankly, for gentiles I do not think it was in any way necessary – not being Jewish, I have no need to consider the laws of Moses. I agree with the Rabbinic chain of reasoning which results in the Noahide Commandments, though not personally feeling a need to follow the principle of “building a fence around the Torah”, I don’t necessary follow the full expansion. I don’t personally see that I need any relaxation or setting aside of those. I did share in a previous post that I have seriously contemplated whether, in order to imitate Jesus more closely, I should act as if I were Jewish (without obligation, of course), but have so far dismissed that. It seems clear to me that Paul was avoiding there being a “two tier” Christianity, with those of Jewish origin being unable to be in full fellowship with those of Gentile origin unless the Gentiles also followed Mosaic Law.

I grant that had the Jewish Christians taken fully to heart Jesus’ scrictures about the validity of the purity provisions, for instance (Matt. 15:11) they might have been able to get round this. Paul may not have had any knowledge of these sayings of Jesus, of course, as Matthew hadn’t yet been written (and so far as I can see, wouldn’t be for about another 40 years). But then, Paul doesn’t actually display very much knowledge at all of Jesus’ lifetime sayings.

Thank goodness we only had “The Message” translation quoted in the pre-meeting, as this renders “Scriptures” in 2 Tim 3:15 as “Word of God”. Even so, really the whole presentation was predicated on the whole Bible being “the Word of God”.

It is hugely clear to me that this is not a tenable position. No form of inerrancy can be sensibly defended against discrepancies (which abound), the fact that no original manuscripts exist, the textual evidence of several layers of rewriting (by different people) in most if not all of the New Testament, and the clear evidence of development in the various writer’s conceptions of very many things through the long history of assembly of the set of books which now comprise the Bible, both within the particular books (textual criticism) and of the whole (formation of the canon).

I hope that no-one reading my blog will, however, be inclined to say “If you don’t take the whole of it as inerrant, you pick and choose what bits you like” (an excluded middle argument with which I have no patience) or that I don’t take scripture seriously – very seriously. To my mind, I “pick and choose” less than do those who mine the text for a set of proof texts which support a position they’ve arrived at. I assess everything I read there critically and prayerfully, trying to see how the inspiration of the various writers was moulded by their language, their preconceptions, world-view and philosophy (and that of their audience) and arrive at what they were really trying to tell those reading them. Where I am in any doubt at all, I refer to experts, and I don’t limit myself to experts of one particular denomination of inclination, liberal or conservative. And I assess the contributions of the experts critically and prayerfully as well.

I am not wonderfully happy that some texts were included in the canon and that others were excluded, but accept that it is the tradition of some 1700 years that these are the scriptures, at least for the Western Churches (with a few additions for Catholics). However, I see no reason why I am precluded from reading the excluded ones and taking them in much the same way as I take the canonical texts (having regard, of course, to the reasons given for their not being included). So far as the others are concerned, there are still many passages which I have not studied in full depth as yet, and yes, I have problems with some of them. I am not, for instance, entirely happy that I want to regard injunctions to exterminate every last Amalekite as being “inspired”, as just one example (particularly the contents of 1 Sam. 28:18). At least, if they are inspired, I have to consider the possibility that the inspiration was very seriously warped by the characters of the (faillible) humans involved in and transmitting the story!

Which leads me neatly back to 2 Tim. 15-17, which I read primarily as Paul’s caution against taking what anyone, however much inspired (or “filled with the spirit”) they may be without comparing it with what those before have written from their own inspirations, and reproving or correcting accordingly. He is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures there, as well, so we really have to view the New Testament through the lens of the Old, which as Paul says, all the New Testament writers took as their authoritative scripture.

Needless to say, I only had the opportunity to hint at bits of these lines of reasoning in the discussion last night and in a number of individual conversations afterwards.

There is one point more, though, which I did not get to talk about, for shortness of time. Nicky Gumbel’s guide for starting Bible readers was promoted. I hate it, not least because, assuming a theological agenda, it picks and chooses those bits of scripture which support that agenda to the exclusion of others. I would still hate it, even if the theological agenda were one with which I did not disagree thoroughly.

If I am granted the strength, I will continue this tomorrow or Saturday…


In my last post, I mentioned something which happened at the end of discussion on Wednesday evening. I was explaining why I didn’t wholly rely on any translation of the Bible, and used as an example the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God”. When I first read that in French, it was from the Jerusalem Bible, which reads “Au commencement etait le Verbe, et le Verbe etait aupres de Dieu, et le Verbe etait Dieu” (sorry for the lack of accents – I don’t know how to get them in WordPress). Although “Verbe” is perfectly well rendered in English by “Word”, at the time I first saw it I’d have expected “Mot”; “Verbe” carries with it at least a hint of being an action word, not a “thing” word. Of course, in the original Greek, the word is “Logos”, which has even more comlexity – and that’s where I stopped.

It proved that someone there was going to be presenting a bible study on the first 18 verses of John the following night  and that this had given them a new dimension to the first verse. I mentioned that there was even more to the original Greek word “Logos”. Having given him a link to the entry on Philo in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, I wasn’t able on Thursday to do full justice to the concept .

I use the above link not because I think it’s wonderfully written (even overlooking the typo in the date of Philo’s embassy) or because I think it does full justice to the subject, but because it’s the fullest resource I could find on the internet for the whole gamut of Philo’s concept of “Logos”.

“Logos” was in any event a Greek philosophical term with a set of meanings well beyond “Word” or “Verbe”, but I think Philo of Alexandria is the best possible source for a fuller understanding of what it is likely the writer intended by using the word “Logos” in the gospel. Philo was a Jewish philosopher who is known to have been old enough and respected enough to head a Jewish delegation to the Emperor Gaius Caligula in 40 CE, which places him as a contemporary of (or possibly a decade or two older than) Jesus. He seems to have had Greek as his primary language, judging by the fact that he quotes from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Torah (the first five books of what we call the Old Testament) rather from the original. He wrote prolifically, and whatever the arguments are, I think it very probable that the Greek-speaking writer of the Fourth Gospel knew of Philo’s ideas, even if you don’t look at what Philo’s ideas actually were; he was after all writing in Greek with Greek philosophical concepts about a development from Hebrew scripture, just as Philo had slightly earlier.

Philo had a very complex idea of the meaning of Logos, drawn from his study of the Torah but putting his understandings into a Greek philosophical framework. Assuming that you don’t want to plough through the entry I’ve linked to above, there are twelve categories listed. Among these are Utterance of God, God’s first-born son, the power of creation, the mediator between God and man and God himself. In other words, all of the philosophical structure underlying the Fourth Gospel is laid out in plenty of detail in Philo’s works. On that basis, I don’t think there’s a serious possibility that the author wasn’t steeped in Philo’s ideas.

It is not surprising that some of the early Church Fathers loved him, even to the extent of trying to co-opt him as at least a proto-Christian (though there’s no sign that he even knew of the existence of Jesus). They already had most of the building blocks of trinitarian thinking laid out for them by Philo.

He isn’t recognised as of any importance by Judaism. Those Orthodox or Conservative Jews with whom I’ve talked consider him an aberrant individual outside anything like the mainstream of Judaism.

That’s where I go out on a limb. I think it highly probable that he’s been deliberately minimised over the years in Judaism, and that actually he was representative of a really significant element in the Greek-speaking diaspora Jewish community, which was all around the Eastern Mediterranean, i.e. in all the places Paul later visited. Scholarship seems to indicate that the Fourth Gospel was written in Asia Minor by a fluent Greek-speaker (there’s less agreement about whether or not he was Jewish).

Before 70CE, there were several strains of what is called “Second Temple” Judaism, including Pharisees, Sadducees, Temple priests, Essenes and Zealots but also, I think, including a significant proportion of Jews in the diaspora who spoke and thought in Greek. The link I gave gives two other names of earlier Jews who wrote combining Greek philosophical thinking and Judaism, so I don’t think this was unusual.

I will grant that between 164BCE and 63BCE the Jews had revolted against the Greek imperial power in the region and maintained an independent state, reacting against the Greek (pre-Roman) oppression of Jews and their attempt to assimilate them, and that during that century there had been a major reaction against anything tinged with “Greek” in Palestine. I doubt, however, that this took in the whole of the diaspora – it certainly didn’t include Philo’s background.

In 66-73CE, the Jews revolted again and were put down with maximal force. The Temple was destroyed and all groups other than the Pharisees were thereafter largely wiped out by death or deportation, a process which took until the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135CE to complete. I think the Jerusalem church was one such casualty.

Without the heart of their religion, the surviving Pharisaic Rabbis were forced to reconsider what Judaism was, and the result seems to me to have been a neo-conservatism in which one often used phrase was “not as the gentiles”. Over the next centuries, anything which smacked of Greek thinking (or Christian thinking) was extirpated.

If, which I am inclined to think, Philo’s kind of thinking was widespread among Greek-speaking diaspora Jews, it goes a long way towards explaining how early Christian concepts might have taken root reasonably easily in Jewish communities in Asia Minor and Greece. Again, my Jewish correspondents seem to think that none of Paul’s ideas (far less John’s, which are regarded as irredeemably antisemitic) could possibly have been accepted by Jews and that Christianity is therefore virtually entirely a Greek phenomenon, just “borrowing” some ideas together with a bad translation of their scriptures (the Septuagint). I don’t now think that’s correct; much more of the conceptual differences (such as God-made-man, man elevated to God or trinity) now seem to me natural developments from a kind of Second Temple Judaism which existed in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the first century.

They’re right from the standpoint of modern Judaism, but not from that of, I think,  a significant part of first century Judaism.And, just to underline my point, modern Judaism doesn’t accept translations of their scriptures as being fully reliable. They have a point!

You don’t need to know all this stuff in order to read John 1, particularly if you have a footnoted Bible which gives additional meanings. But I think you’re missing something.



Haven’t a prayer… (Alpha week 4)

Week 4 is titled “Why and how do I pray”. The speaker gave a largely personal account, which I thoroughly approve of. OK, there was stress on involving the whole trinity, which I can understand but which to my mind gives you far too much to think about before you even get started. There wasn’t much stress on tangible results (” Oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercecedes Benz…”) thank goodness, as I think there are all sorts of problems in taking some of the passages that suggest that whatever you pray for (in the right way…) you will get, such as Matt. 18:19 or John 14:13-14 – the first was mentioned, the second not. We also didn’t touch too much on the list of excuses for a literal interpretation of those passages actually not happening most of the time, as given in the Alpha manual. The speaker did say that when she prayed, coincidences happened. They do indeed. Granted, coincidences happen when you don’t pray as well, and I’m well enough aware of my own internal confirmation bias not to want to advance any personal evidence myself.

There wasn’t much stress on the ACTS formulation either (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). Actually, I think this is a pretty fair formula. Some while ago a good friend told me how much he liked the Great Litany , which I’m not all that familiar with, despite hanging around a few fairly “high” churches in the past. I told him I thought it was a bit long, and he asked what I’d put in it’s place…

“Hey, Boss; Wow!; Sorry; Thanks; Help!; Whatever…”

He agreed that it was, indeed, shorter!

OK, that’s the outline, now fill in the specifics.

I talked a little about not wanting to ask for specifics, not only because I was unconvinced they’d be granted but also because I valued so much the second S which I’d add to ACTS – submission. I said my favorite and very much most used prayer was the Serenity Prayer – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. Of course, that doesn’t conform to the ACTS formula, but it’s big on submission. “Not my will but thine be done, O Lord” ends any prayer I make which actually asks for something.

Prayer is mandated as a continuing activity in Step 11 of AA’s Twelve Steps – “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out”, but I considered it valuable for exactly that purpose a long time before I had read it in a twelve step programme. Yes, I considered it valuable as one of very many spiritual practices which I explored in my early attempts to find a way of repeating the overwhelming “conscious contact with God” which kicked me off some 45 years ago. But, in conscience, though I generally pray (by myself and silently) quite a bit, I’ve only for fairly brief periods had a formal routine of prayer. I suspect I should; there was certainly a period of my life during which I lost the habit of pausing and praying for guidance and inspiration many times a day, and that may well have contributed to the fact that these days I mostly lack the instant feeling of response and presence which I once got used to. And, of course, took for granted. A big mistake, I think.

I will try to do better…

I didn’t mention special techniques such as lectio divina and Ignatian visualisatory prayer. I use a form of the first frequently. The second, I don’t counsel unless you have a spiritual director, which I don’t at present, but it can be extremely powerful. Possibly too advanced for this kind of group, at least in week 4? I did slide in a comment that telling the rosary can be viewed as a form of mantra yoga – Hindus and Buddhists have no monopoly on this kind of technique!

There was one slight sidetrack in the discussion, which I’ll talk about in another post. Suffice it to say that something I said gave another member of the group a new and energising insight. I give thanks that I was able to do this. It makes me appreciate the worth of doing this so much more.