Alpha 1 – historicism/mythicism

For my Alpha group, here’s a debate between Zeba Crook (a non-Christian New Testament scholar) and Richard Carrier (possibly the only reasonably weighty scholar who argues complete mythicism). For our purposes, as none of us think the mythicist position is correct, the relevant portion is from about 11 minutes to about 31 minutes, which is Zeba Crook talking (No, it isn’t necessary to watch the whole hour and three quarters).

Zeba give a good overview of the position that the early Christians progressively mythicised an historical figure with a few excellent examples.

Heidegger, Yoder, donatists, women and the homoamorous.

I’ve been reading a bit about Heidegger recently. The reason (bearing in mind my aversion to philosophers) is that some ideas I’m coming across in radical theology seem rooted in a line of philosophy going back Caputo-Derrida-Heidegger-Husserl-Hegel and I wanted to trace some of the history of these so as to understand them better (or, arguably, at all). This post, however, is not about that. There may be a post sometime in the future when I’ve decided if I actually do understand this line of philosophy, but this is not that; it may never happen.

One thing which always seems to come up when Heidegger is talked about is that the man was a Nazi, a paid up member of the party who did not resign when a number of other German philosophers and theologians did, and that inevitably leads to musing about whether Heidegger’s ideas should be questioned in a more general sense, despite him being recognised among philosophers as a great albeit nearly incomprehensible philosopher who has been influential on many subsequent great philosophers. (I pause here to wonder if the terms “great philosopher” and “nearly incomprehensible philosopher” are actually just the same thing). Does the guy’s antisemitism and support of a totally reprehensible regime mean that his ideas outside the realm of politics and sociology should be either dismissed or treated with huge caution?

I’m inclined to think that the answer has to be “no”. Maybe a little caution, but not much more than I apply when reading any thinker.

There’s another parallel in the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who is now known to have serially abused women; despite this, his theology is very influential, including and perhaps especially his specialist area, which was ethics – which brings to mind the old saw “do as I say, not as I do”, as his actual personal ethics would seem to have been very questionable.

This rather recalls to me the situation in another area which I found myself talking about a few days ago, the Donatist heresy. Briefly, as persecution of the early Christians slackened and ceased, there were significant numbers who had recanted rather than refuse to compromise their beliefs (which tended to lead to hardship if not martyrdom) and who then returned to the Christian fold when times were better. Some of them became priests, and the Donatists held that those who had denied Christ were not able to administer a valid sacrament. The church held against them. Their ability to act as priest was not compromised by their “treason against Christ” as the Donatists would have put it, in much the same way as Heidegger’s ability to think philosophically was not compromised by his odious political leanings.

So to contemplating various of my brothers and sisters in Christ who are unwilling to be taught by or receive the sacraments from women, or those in same sex relationships. I’m wondering in what ways you can distinguish those two cases from that of Heidegger, Yoder or of bishop Caecilian of Carthage, whose appointment really brought the Donatist tendency to the fore as significant numbers formed a breakaway church, and whether those distinctions ought to make any difference.

Yes, there are obvious distinctions. Heidegger and Caecilian went through a phase, while Yoder was apparently combining writing about ethics while acting unethically at the same time; arguendo the incapacity of women or homoamourous individuals is innate rather than a chosen behaviour. Alternatively in the case of the homoamorous the behaviour may be continuing. I could, I suppose, in the case of women quote the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 114, Layton translation) “Simon Peter said to them, “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become a living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Perhaps we should consider this as a sop to 1st century male chauvinism, which could not contemplate that “female” was not automatically linked with “incapacity”, and finding a way round that, with the underlying message that for all sensible purposes Mary could and should be regarded as entirely equal with males? Then again, perhaps more popularly, I could reference Gal. 3:28.

My question is, do these distinctions actually matter to the main point; are all the things that people think, say or do tainted by some past action or character trait which we may find reprehensible? Or should we just accept that people are complicated and imperfect, and judge them purely on their ability to do the task in hand and not on something unconnected? Even, in Yoder’s case, something actually connected but which does not appear to have adversely affected his power of thought on the subject.

My strong suspicion is that we are here looking at the kind of purity issue which Richard Beck talks of in “Unclean”. If I’m right on that, it involves a non-rational tendency of human psychology which is very difficult to shake off – but one which Jesus, in ministering to lepers, outcasts (publicans and sinners), members of the hated occupying forces (a Centurion) and even members of an even more hated competing religion from the same root (Samaritans) sought by example to show us we should not base our actions on.



Zombies, witches, miracles and apologies

There’s a very good post at Kelsos (otherwise adversus apologetica) which I’ve just read.

The writer is not a fan of apologetics (and neither am I), but in this case interestingly accepts that miracles can and do happen, analyses the crucifixion and resurrection account with that assumption, and still comes to the conclusion that it can’t have happened as described. Miracles, of course, are unlikely in the extreme; we do not have any really reliably documented miracle to persuade us otherwise, pace the Catholic saint-making apparatus, nor indeed any conclusive evidence of any supernatural occurrence. I include here the medical “miracles” which are so popular in apologetic anecdote; none of them really bears scrutiny in a field in which spontaneous cures for many ailments do actually happen without any suggestion of supernatural intervention.

A major feature of the article is that the account in Matt. 27:51-54 (link NIV from Bible Gateway) would have attracted comment from Roman sources which we actually still have (unkind people have referred to this as “Matthew’s zombie apocalypse”, which is funny enough for me to repeat despite the possible offence).

Another mainstay of the argument is that there is actually far better and more believable evidence for witchcraft in Salem in the late 17th century. There, there is a plethora of sworn statements in court as to the activities of the alleged witches, and no evidence against other than the presupposition that supernatural events do not happen. Very few people these days would, however, accept that the “Salem witches” were actually that, and possessed of supernatural powers, including (I think) the vast majority of Christians.

I hadn’t considered Salem in that way before, and it makes sense as a far more recent (and far better documented) example. My own major stumbling block has always been the miracle claims of other religions. I do try very hard not to allow my presumption against supernatural causes to drift to a dogmatic “there are no miracles and never have been” stance. However, using very much the technique of Matthew Fergusson in that blog, if I suspend disbelief in miracle claims in the New Testament I also have to suspend disbelief in miracle claims in, for instance, the Iliad and Oddysey, in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, even in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I have to consider that it’s likely that Nero was raised from the dead, and probably Elvis as well. I also need to take account of miraculous births of, say, Alexander the Great and many other legendary and even historical figures.

So, with a small but niggling regret, I have to interpret the Bible as if all or almost all of the accounts of miracles and supernatural events are literary decoration rather than hard fact. This doesn’t usually give me a problem, except when talking with fellow Christians who take a different view – and mostly, the fact or non-fact of miracles in the Bible isn’t actually significant to the metaphor or allegory in the passage, and I can move past historicity and concentrate on what the story really tells us, which is in the metaphor, the allegory, the parable.

But there are two problems. Firstly, I quite commonly find myself talking with people who report healing “miracles”. I think of these very much as does Aric Clark in a “Two Friars and a Fool” post. I don’t think they’re actually miracles. But I don’t really want to come out and say that; I’m happy for them that healing has occurred, and I don’t want to shake trust in God. Granted, I think trust in God should be leavened with a reading of Job and Ecclesiastes; while God can be trusted, he can’t necessarily be trusted to do what you want or expect, or what is most comfortable or comforting for you.

The other aspect is in considering the impact of Christ in the world. I find it extremely difficult to think of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection (the last of which I interpret largely non-supernaturally) as being a case of God doing something which changes the world radically (for instance, making it possible, perhaps for the first time, for all people to be resurrected after death). I have no problem in thinking of it as changing the thinking of mankind radically, which I think it provably has and continues to do.

But there are those who say that if Christ didn’t actually die in order that I might be saved from something (whereas had he not existed, I wouldn’t have had this possibility), then he died for nothing. Now I don’t remotely believe that to be the case, but it seems that for them, they can see no possible reasoning beyond the PSA which they have been indoctrinated in. If they were to accept any merit at all in my thinking, it seems, they would lose all faith.

I don’t want that to happen. I want them to continue to follow Jesus as their lord, to love God and to love their fellow men as themselves. And if the only way in which they can continue to do that is to believe in miracles and PSA (repugnant as I find PSA), I will walk gently away. I may even apologise – not for saying what I think is true, but for saying it to them at what was the wrong time.

If, for some reason, they find they are having difficulty with the concepts in the future, I can offer other ways of thinking. But I don’t want to offer solutions where there’s no perception of a problem. That, it seems to me, is too much like trying to evangelise by first convincing someone – who was previously comfortable in their alternative belief (whatever it was) or lack of one – that they’re a vicious sinner destined for Hell.

Where I do think miracles occur (although it’s maybe a stretch to call them miracles) is within human consciousnesses. I see many cases of cures of addiction and lives transformed in and (less frequently) outside twelve step. And twelve step requires a “God of your understanding” in order to work. It doesn’t matter (experience has proven) what that understanding actually is. Sometimes it’s a conventional protestant PSA one (which is particularly attractive to addicts, who need no convincing that they’re hopeless sinners), often it involves believing in miracles.

So, my more conventional friends, you don’t have to think the way I do about Christianity in order to be my brothers and sisters in faith. But if you’re having problems with conventional readings (or are merely interested in how someone else thinks), I’m here. And may your God go with you, as Dave Allen used to say.

Self, death and mystical consciousness

In “The Idolatry of God” and in some of his other work, the philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins makes use of Jacques Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage” in child development to indicate that at a very early stage of our development (between 6 and 18 months) we first become aware of a distinction between ourselves and the “other”, that this represents the inception of the sense of self. In two recent posts,  “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin” and “Falling further”, I developed a reading of Genesis 2 & 3 which saw Original Sin as being in substance the self-centredness and self-seeking which stems inevitably from the development of this sense of self, which agrees well with Rollins conception. Quoting from the Alcoholics Anonymous book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”, “The chief activator of our defects has been self-centered fear—primarily fear that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded.” What AA describes as “character defects” I think we can reasonably call “original sin”.

I’m currently reading Richard Beck’s latest book, “The Slavery of Death”, which I picked up after writing the previous posts. Beck, interestingly, starts with a reading of Genesis 2 & 3 from the perspective of the Orthodox Church which sees death as originating in this story (which I don’t) but then equates the fear of death with original sin, and as the effective power of the devil; he goes on to develop this concept. He quotes the Orthodox theologian John Romanides’ “Ancestral Sin” in saying “Any perceived threat automatically triggers fear and uneasiness. Fear doers not allow a man to be perfected in love… Being under the sway of death and not having real and correct faith in God, man is anxious over everything and is ruled by selfish bodily and psychological motives and, thus, he is unable to love unselfishly and freely. He loves and has faith according to what he percieves to be to his own advantage… Thus, he is deprived of his original destiny and is off the mark spiritually. In biblical language, these failures and deviations are called sins. The fountain of man’s personal sin is the power of death that is in the hands of the devil and in man’s own willing submission to him.”

I note, however, that death is the ultimate threat to the self, so with the reservation that I think the sense of self and fear for loss of any part of what is regarded as “the self” is more fundamental even than the fear of death (and gives rise to it) I can follow on with Becks other arguments. I’m certainly with him in not considering that it is necessary to posit a personal embodiment of sin and evil in order to call this self-centred sin diabolical, something of the devil; personally I do not find the concept of an anthropomorphic personification of evil to be useful, but others may do so.

Beck goes on to discuss the conception of evil in the world developed by William Stringfellow and Walter Wink (inter alia) as being the Powers and Authorities; all groupings, ideologies and systems in the world are identifiable as the physical expressions (at the least) of what can be regarded as spiritual powers, and pursues the concept that inasmuch as we give our allegiance to such human structures, whether these be employers, political parties or ideologies, football clubs, governments or even churches we are giving our allegiance to effectively diabolical powers which are, in effect, giving ourselves over to the power of death (as all such structures will end, i.e. die, and also their demands are inimical to us living our own lives for ourselves and our loved ones, and so these allegiances become a partial death.

At this point I need to recap on one of the fundamental aspects of the mystical experience through which I inevitably see existence, that of the disintegration of the boundary between self and other, between self and God. This has a number of results – firstly, I am unable to see others as in any real sense separate from me, and thus the mechanism which Rollins posits of the fundamental drive being to exert control of the other ceases to have real effect, insofar as I remain in contact with the mystical experience. That which is me, the self, can and does expand to include all those around me, or all people of my town, my area or my country, or all of humanity, or all living things, or all that exists inclusive of such part of that-which-is-God which is not immanent in all of those more restricted categories.

Seeing this from the point of view put forward by Rollins/Lacan, this viewpoint relieves me of the need to seek some external object which will give satisfaction, which will make whole the lack seen in the self when considered in relationship with the Other; there is, in truth, no “Other” (or, formulated differently, there is no “self” to put in opposition to the Other. Rollins points out that the loss, the lack felt in the inception of the sense of self, is illusory in that before the inception of the sense of self, there was no self to have anything taken away from; from my point of view the lack is illusory because the boundary itself is ultimately illusory.

Seen from the point of view of Beck’s writing, I am similarly relieved of the fear of death (and this should not be taken to indicate that I am not extremely scared of most of the ways of becoming dead, as I am not a great fan of physical pain, nor to indicate that all of my subconscious mechanisms share this view – this is “SR” speaking here with unconditional assent from “GF” but lesser support from “EC”, and none from mechanisms such as the “reptile mind”). Nor is it something I can claim as an achievement – the initial experience was either given or thrust on me out of the blue, though I have expended energy on repeating and building on it.

Beck does caution in these words:- “In summary, timor mortis is a fact of life and a regular feature of the Christian experience. The fear of death is always with us, moment by moment and day by day, and its absence would signal an indifference that could be, by turns, pathological, triumphalistic, or a spurning of the gift of life. The fearlessness we should seek is not an emotional blankness in the face of death. Such a blankness would be unable to make a distinction between life and death, and thus would be an act of ingratitude to God for the gift and goodness of life. Rather, the fearlessness we are speaking of involves an overcoming rather than a numbness, a refusal to let death be a motive force in our decision making and identity formation.” Having gone through a period of several years of severe clinical depression, I can testify to what it is like for this to turn to a pathological indifference; a year ago, I really had no way of making a judgment between life and death from any of my own resources, and am here now largely because I considered that I owed it to people who cared for me. It is not like that now, but it is also not a conscious overcoming. It is not triumphalistic (what do I find to triumph in in that this particular part of the All does not fear death?) and since the depression lifted, I am all too ready to give thanks for the gift of life.

One of the ways in which this lack of fear can make sense to me is touched on by Beck; in his formulation (which owes much to Ernest Becker) our fear of death is alleviated by making some contribution to the power or authority of our choice, as that contribution is seen as persisting for the life of that power or authority which we (wrongly) think of as immortal; Beck talks of the “hero system” in which achievements within some human system are valued and extolled, and give a sense of self-worth which placates death anxiety. Granted, Becker (and thus Beck) see this as a way of alleviating anxiety about death while I see it as alleviating anxiety about the wider context of diminishment of the sense of self, in particular linked to the desire to control the “other”.

For me, I view this more as a limited way of moving towards the mystical erasure of the boundary between self and other; inasmuch as we identify with some organisation, it becomes to an extent a part of the self, and that part may well survive the death or the individual. Of course, it may not survive the individual, and hence we suffer a major loss of identity in, for instance, the closure of our employer’s business (or our losing our job with it), the end of a marriage, the fall of a state (or radical change in it) or the disgrace of an ideology, for instance in the fall of communism as seen as a viable way of structuring society. It seems to me that people (in the main unconsciously) actually do perform this transfer of self-identity ; I am enabled by the mystical consciousness (again, insofar as I remain in close touch with it) to move my concept of self to such structures temporarily, but only fleetingly, as more extensive identifications (or less extensive ones) are always available.

One of Beck’s major themes is our reaction to the “other”, and he elsewhere builds on (for instance) Rene Girard’s concepts of mimetic violence and scapegoating and on the concepts of holiness and purity (in “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality”). In “The Slavery of Death”, he devotes some time to outlining how the neurotic desire to protect the system in which we trust to alleviate our fear of death (in his formulation) or in which we invest a major part of our sense of self (in mine) leads to rivalry, exclusion and conformity and even violence. This has echoes in some of Rollins’ work as well, where he looks to destabilise excessive reliance on our favoured structures; “Insurrection” and “The Fidelity of Betrayal” are along those lines, as are his “transformance art” occasions.

Beck goes on to talk about various techniques for improving what he calls an “eccentric” sense of self, “eccentric” in that it is not focused within the individual, drawing substantially from St. Thérèse de Lisieux. In the main, I see these as “act as if” methods. Modern psychology is confident from much experimentation that “act as if” works, and that as you act so will you eventually come to believe. As an aside, I feel that this rather punctures the Apostle Paul’s strictures against works righteousness; certainly feeling smug about works is a negative thing, but actually acting in the way you would wish to have flow from your inner convictions does clearly operate to produce those inner convictions. On this I’m with James; faith without works is dead.

Finally, Beck goes on to talk about what he describes as “the slavery of God”, in which a conception of God becomes part of a death-avoiding concept of self-valuation, and is then protected at all costs. Beck rightly identifies this as a form of idolatry. So, of course, does Rollins in “The Idolatry of God”, seeing the idolatrous “God” as being the “big other” which can fill the void resulting from our sense of primal loss. Both writers suggest ways in which this can be avoided, Beck’s being less dramatic and contraversial, and probably therefore more practical. I commend both books, and frankly suggest that if you’ve read either “The Slavery of Death” or “The Idolatry of God, you should go on to read the other as well.


I would also go on to strongly recommend the development of a mystical consciousness, which tends to resolve both problems, except for one thing – my own experience is of being given this, and I’m uncertain to what extent the various practices which various mystics over the ages have recommended can function to create a mystical consciousness where none existed previously. Beck’s practical suggestions and Rollins’ radical ones may, however, go some way towards this – and so do meditation and contemplation.

Enough of writing about it, I need to go and act!