Have you understood nothing?

There is an article in New Scientist by a couple of eminent professors, one of Hebrew Bible and one of New Testament, dealing with a variety of leaders of Christian groups who ascribe the Ebola epidemic to a divine punishment.

I have absolutely no time for people who do this, and still less for people who do it and then fail to render assistance to those who are suffering because “it is God’s will”. I agree with everything the writers say, in fact.

But I am surprised that neither of them marshals specific arguments from the traditions they teach. Where, for instance, is the reference to the book of Job (by either of them) in which, inter alia, Job is afflicted with a number of diseases through absolutely no fault of his own, and his “friends” who suggest that this is divine punishment for him secretly having been a bad lad are roundly criticised by God? Where is the reference by Candida Moss to John 9:3, in which Jesus says “neither this man nor his parents sinned” in response to his disciples asking why a man had been born blind?

I rather suspect the authors of the Fourth Gospel of having minimised the acerbity of Jesus’ comment here; this was, after all, someone who consorted with all the kinds of people whom the ilk of leaders who make these remarks regard as “undeserving”, i.e. with agents of a foreign invader, members of despised religions, extorters of taxes, prostitutes and other sinners, and who healed profligately and in circumstances distinctly frowned on by the religious authorities of the day. He was quite commonly acerbic with those religious leaders, and (particularly in Mark) not terribly polite to his disciples when they failed to understand things (Peter being told “get thee behind me, Satan” springs to mind).

I can easily insert words which the Jesus of my understanding may have said and which have been left out here, such as “have you understood NOTHING?”

And that is pretty much my response to any leader describing himself as Christian who makes such crass remarks.

What difference did Jesus make, after all?

Enthused by Mark Sandlin, who is running a series of posts about how he finds it difficult to live with a variety of Christian doctrines (which you may translate as “about ways in which he is a heretic”, and some of his commentators do), I feel like tackling a point which has been exercising my mind for a while.

You could word it as “was Jesus unique?”, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it. The heart of it, it seems to me, is the thought that, without Jesus, no-one could be “saved” (Jn. 3:16-18, 14:6 and several other verses). The subtext of that is that by being born, living, dying on the cross and being resurrected, Jesus changed the possibility of relationship between man and God in a fundamental way. Putting it much more directly, in Jesus, God made it possible for himself to save people (whether from Satan, sin, death, Hell or some other suboptimal result), whereas without him, God could not do that.

I seem to find this idea underneath the thinking of quite a lot of otherwise fairly progressive, even postmodern Christians who I read. Jesus has to be doing something that no-one else could do. Well, isn’t that the message of the two passages from John above? John 3:18 reads, after all, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Some of these have apart from this belief-sets which are very congenial to me, but still insist on this point. Among other things, it seems to me that this makes interfaith dialogue extremely difficult.

It seems to me that this species of uniqueness cannot be the case.

Firstly, if (which I do not personally accept, but which most of those with this mindset do) God is omnipotent, it is self-evident that God could save people however and whenever he wanted, and as a general rule has done exactly that, according to scripture more generally. It makes a mockery of the repeated divine statements that he will save Israel, for instance, if he actually condemns them for not having accepted Jesus (in many cases, because they died before Jesus was even born), e.g. Is. 43:1-13. It contradicts, I think, Paul’s argument in Romans 4:1-8, which not only suggests that at least Abraham has “saved” status without reliance on Jesus, but also refers to David’s words in Ps. 32:1, which do not make sense unless God is indeed counting righteous, and therefore saving, the undeserving, some centuries before Christ.

Secondly if (which I definitely believe) God is omnibenevolent, it seems to me inconceivable that he would leave it so late to institute this system of salvation, likewise restrict it to people who needed to do something. If you accept “sola gratia”, John’s passages seem doubly difficult to accept when taken in the usual reading.

Thirdly, though (and for me this is the clincher from an objective point of view), this mindset requires that you think that God got things wrong when setting out various schemes of salvation earlier than the New Testament. I grant that Paul’s argument in Rom. 1-8 does seem to indicate this on the normal reading (not so much so on the New Perspective” readings), but this is to me a prominent reason for thinking that the normal, Martin Luther reading is flawed.

I admit that I do not understand a divine perspective which requires belief (which quite a lot of people of my acquaintance are entirely unable to have) in order to save someone, entirely independently of what they do, who they are and how they behave.

There is a fourth reason, which weighs heaviest with me, however, which is that as I have a personal experience of God as radically omnipresent, as in everyone and everything, the concept of cutting off any person for any reason whatsoever is not something which I can contemplate God doing, even if s/he could (and I do not think s/he could without going against his/her nature). This has to stem from creation itself (see some of my earlier posts) and cannot, therefore, change due to a single historical event.

What clearly can change, and did, is the thinking of what is now cumulatively a very large number of people, and is arguably still a very substantial proportion of the population of the earth (larger still if you consider that Islam venerates Jesus as the prophet Isa). The story of Jesus changed the thinking of a group of early Christians in eastern Anatolia who produced the writers of the Fourth Gospel, including at least one Christ-mystic, for instance, and who could not contemplate being in the relationship they now saw themselves in with God save for the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It changed the thinking of a first century Pharisee who had an ecstatic experience on the Damascus road making him a Christ-mystic and who changed his name to Paul. It has changed the thinking of billions of people in the various Christian and Christian-derived churches and religious bodies over the last two millennia.

And, of course, it has changed me. Jesus is unique to me, as he has been unique to those billions. I can’t say that Jesus figured in my initial ecstatic mystical experience, nor in the several I have had since; as far as I can conceive, these have been unmediated experiences of the One God, which makes me a God-mystic. He has figured in a number of other experiences I have had resulting from Ignatian directed prayer, but those have been as a result of definite effort on my part to think in the Ignatian mould; although these too could be described as “mystical”, they have not been so powerful or so transformative.

However, when it comes to how I should act, there, Jesus is most definitely the boss, the exemplar. He is also, to me, the ideal of someone who was a God-mystic.

But I don’t think his life, his death or his post-mortem appearances made any difference to who God saved. What it did was make a difference to whether a very many people knew themselves to be saved, knew themselves to be beloved of God.



Hancock, Superman and Israel

This may be just another piece of fun. Then again…

I got to thinking recently about a few things put together: the film “Hancock”, Larry Niven’s short story “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” and Israeli excuses for civilian casualties in Gaza.

“Hancock” features a drunk, depressed superhero who overdoes even the simplest attempts to use his powers, particularly in the beginning of the film. “Man of Steel…” discusses the immense problems faced by Superman in having sex with Lois Lane. Israel, of course, says that it is extremely difficult to avoid civilian casualties when trying to kill terrorists who are moving among a civilian population – dodging the issue that they are using weapons built to cause major damage in an area rather than more surgical means (or, indeed, just not trying to kill anyone where there are a load of civilians around). The first two are comedies, the third is the antithesis of comedy.

In all these cases, the issue is of someone who possesses immense power, but is unable to moderate it or apply it in a minutely controlled manner in order to prevent damage which is not desirable.

However, there was a fourth thing in my mind at the time (and actually, it was the first thing which I was thinking about), that being the issues I have with omnipotence, and why, if God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, the world is still full of things happening like – well – Gaza. The usual argument (with which I tend to agree) is that you can’t have all three of these at the same time, and if anything has to give it’s not omnibenevolence, i.e. God’s love for everyone (and everything). I’m usually fairly happy to dispense with omnipotence and omniscience.

But here’s the thought – maybe God does have the kind of omnipotent power which can speak an universe into existence (as is one interpretation of Genesis 1). Maybe he can even manage the rather greater fine tuning needed to stop the rotation of the earth while simultaneously temporarily cancelling the inertia of the earth and everything on it, and then reversing the process, as in Joshua 10, where the sun stands still in the sky at the siege of Jericho (in a literalist interpretation), or the (by those standards) additional delicacy of touch of parting the Red Sea – but that’s as fine as it gets. Maybe, if he tried to (for instance) create me a parking space in response to prayer, the best he could manage would be a whirlwind which would destroy the supermarket I was planning to visit, killing most of those in it as well as shifting a few cars?

Perhaps this is just a ridiculous suggestion. If it is, though, it’s probably because omnipotence is a ridiculous concept.

Processing – end of run.

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. In the third, I outlined some concepts in classical theology and three problems which that gives rise to. In the fourth, I explored two less than fortunate consequences of the dualism of classical Greek philosophy; this post deals with more.

To amplify further, classical philosophy dealt, by and large, with metaphysics, that which lay beyond physics. The “physics of the day” was more advanced in many respects than it had any right to be, considering that it had almost no conception of scientific method and was drawn almost entirely from musing on data drawn from everyday experience. I say “more advanced” because it had, for instance, the concept of the “atom”, the a-tomos, the undivisible minute building block of all matter, the concepts of force, power and potential, even, arguably, the concept of the field. These concepts took physics a very long way, indeed up to the point at which Einstein proposed matter-energy equivalence, special and general relativity, quanta and wave-particle duality (and various other scientists were proposing other equally revolutionary breaks with anything which could be sensibly described by the physics of the day).

The classical metaphysics followed the same lines, and used the same concepts as its building blocks.

The snag is that we now have a better understanding of the material world in which concepts such as “essence”, “the material”, even “spirit” do not have anything like the same basis as they did in the classical world (and we need to remember that the thinking of the classical world was effectively the only way to think until at the earliest the nineteenth century, although some philosophers and theologians had been delving beyond that as early as the seventeenth century). Some of them are, in truth, incoherent in the eyes of a Physicist (and I used to be one).

The sixth (and for the moment the last) problem is the failure of classical philosophical ideas to deal with continua and with enmeshed and interdependent phenomena, which are a significant feature of modern physics. This leads, in theology, inter alia to a tendency to create binary opposites; that dealt with in the last post (spirit and matter), heaven and hell, good and evil, God and Satan, sinful and justified (or redeemed, or forgiven), orthodoxy and heresy as some of many instances.

Callid Keefe-Perry puts things this way:- “One of the struggles that I believe we face is that even the language we use to talk about talking about God is marred with the marks of a Hellenization that does not well suit the numinous.  When we postulate that God may be too transcendent, we seem to be articulating a vision of God that is somehow fixed “out there,” something akin a quasi-Platonic Form of Divinity.  Indeed, Plato’s description of the Form of Beauty seems not too far removed from how many talk about God: “It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself” (The Symposium, 211b).  That is, the transcendent Form is so far removed from our world and our experience of the world that the best we can hope to do is experience some lesser reproduction of the thing.  The result of this thinking then, is that the best we can do when attempting to articulate something transcendent is hope to name some flawed copy of the thing we actually sought to speak.  I reject this construction.”

Now, process doesn’t really suffer from this dualism, as it stresses interconnectedness and relationship over hard and fast boundaries. It tends more to see things as centered on some point, but as attenuating from that point and not being really “bounded”, if indeed it sees things as “things” at all – there is more of a tendency to talk of “events” and, of course, “processes”. In addition, at the level of human beings as biological entities, we are, in terms of modern concepts of biology, not discrete entities – we are, for instance, dependent for our functioning on a host of bacteria (as many Yoghurt adverts will tell you); we are not on the level of groups of us truly independent, as most models of social structure will say. As such, process-relational thinking is a far better fit to what we now know about the most basic mechanisms of the universe.

It is also, however, a better fit with scripture. The bulk of scripture is the Hebrew Scriptures, which were by and large not written with a classical Greek philosophical framework. The result is that concepts such as omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, impassibility and even incorporeality, transcendence and simplicity are at best underdetermined by the texts and at worst flatly contradicted by some. Yes, you can find proof texts which state something about God which is along each of these lines, but you can find other texts which cannot be sensibly understood if you attribute to God these characteristics.

The result is that in the writings of, for instance, Bruce Epperley and John Cobb, process theology starts looking very promising as an alternative way of looking at theology to replace the Platonism or Aristotelianism of traditional theology.

Bo Sanders says of Process-Relational theology:- “This is not a simple tweak of the existing system (like Open theology). This is not a program that you just download and install into your already in place operating system. It is not a patch that employ to get rid of the bugs and kinks in the classical program. Relational thought is a different operating system (to use the fun Mac v. Microsoft Windows analogy).” He also remarks:- “When someone looks into Process (or many other schools) and wades into the explanation against substance/matter and its replacement with packets of time/moments/actualities – it is just too much jabber-talkie and vocabulary.”

Here is the real problem: although in the writings of process theologians (as opposed to process philosophers) Process is very attractive, there is a really major shift in how you need to start viewing the universe as a whole, not just how you view theology. I’ve already confessed to a certain degree of blind spot towards philosophy generally, although I also feel a need to be as solidly based as it’s possible for me to be. That said, for upwards of 40 years I’ve looked at the universe at its most basic level as not being composed of “things”, not being best described by a substance/matter kind of description, and I’m happy to carry on with that.

However, I also learn from that background that it isn’t on the whole useful to expand that way of looking at things to a more general context. I may, for instance, know that both myself and the wall next to me are composed of emptiness with some widely spaced vibrations going on (and as a result of mystical experience be entirely confident that the boundary between myself and these things is not a true boundary at all), but that does not mean I can get up and walk through the wall (as direct collision of the vibrations could in theory be avoided). I am sitting on a chair; I do not fall through it, despite it being composed mostly of empty space. It is far more practical for me to regard the wall, the chair and myself as distinct objects occupying discrete amounts of space. A really good comprehensive theology should reflect that, as well as the basic fact of my being a set of vibrations.

However, as the universe is clearly (from physics) a set of vibrations, of events and processes, rather than a set discrete entities (or a single entity), and as at the biological and social levels I am not truly single, separated and discrete, a really good comprehensive theology should reflect that as well. That may not be “process” as such, but it has to be relational.


God feels for you…

A lot of theologians these days are talking about an interpretation of God which does not see him as a kind of superhero (as I criticised recently). John Caputo talks of the “weakness of God”, Peter Rollins talks of abandoning the concept of the “big other” and suggests that the message is that we are all broken, not that God will fix it, process theologians such as John Cobb talk of a relational God who involves himself with humanity but does not control.

It’s nice to feel one is not alone!

Now, I am a man. I suffer from the age-old problem that when you come to a man with a problem, he will either tell you how he thinks you can fix it or he’ll offer to fix it himself – and this does not improve communication with women, who, when they bring a problem to you most often want you to sympathise with them, to enter into their pain, to be present for them. It’s taken me a lot of years of marriage to get this idea into my thick skull, and I still not infrequently revert to type and start suggesting solutions to my wife, which proves not to be what she was looking for.

This breed of theologians, however, are now talking of a theology of the cross in which God is seen as entering into the suffering of the world, demonstrating that he is not in fact the unmoved mover, the unfeeling omnipotent one moving human pieces around for some cosmic purpose (in much traditional theology, the purpose being to become able to forgive humanity). It’s the kind of image which I talk about in connection with Matt. 25:31-46, in which I see God as being damaged when we cause or allow damage to any other human being – “What you did not do for them, you did not do for me”.

This is very much the kind of response to problems which women, rather than men, tend to gravitate to.

So, it occurs to me that there is a fault in what I’ve written so far – when I’ve mentioned God, I’ve used the term “he”. In relationships, it looks very much as if God is more female than male – so I should perhaps have been using the term “she”. “Verily, God is our mother” as Julian of Norwich (a woman) wrote some 500 years ago.

God is with us in all of our pain and suffering, and she feels for us in this; she does not come and offer us a “quick fix” or offer to fix it for us (at least, on the whole).

Theologians having been mostly men, it is maybe not too surprising that it’s taken the best part of 2000 years for them to start thinking of God in terms which are more female than male, as something other than a big man in the sky. In quite a lot of cases, they still can’t bring themselves to think that way.

I feel their pain, just as God does in her infinite wisdom…

A different Kingdom

I’ve just read “May (the end of) your Kingdom come”, a blogpost from early 2012 from Bo Sanders at Homebrewed.

Interesting (and there are some interesting comments as well).

Now, I’m very keen on the Kingdom as a motif. I think it represents the absolute centre of Jesus’ message – it’s probably the individual most-used term in Jesus’ teachings in the Synoptic Gospels. I’ve written before about my own mystical take on part of what Jesus might have been getting at. I don’t remotely think that post deals with the whole ramifications of what can be gleaned from the Kingdom statements; one major aspect which is missed there, for instance, is the countercultural, subversive aspect, setting up the Kingdom of God (or Heaven) in opposition to the Empire of Caesar, an aspect which melds very well with the Girardian concept of atonement as breaking with the pattern of redemptive violence, which I think is a very valuable addition to the historical list of atonement theories.

But I worry about Bo’s thinking. It isn’t at all what “kingdom” has historically conjured up for me, and I really don’t like the concept that it might bring in thinking of God’s reign as being imperial and oppressive, as he suggests. This would be doing what his partner at Homebrewed, Tripp Fuller once described in a podcast (mid 2012) as “Caesar’s editors got hold of the Jesus story and they rendered unto God the things which were Caesar’s, namely omnipotence, empire by coercion, cross building and totalitarian ideologies”. This is not the picture I have at all, even though I’ve come across people wanting to translate “Kingdom of God” as “God’s Imperial Rule”, at which I shudder.

Thinking about it, though, it seems to me that a particular view of kings and kingdoms is part of the American myth of origins: the revolution occurred “in order to get away from the tyrannical reign of the Kings of England”, in particular George III. This part of the myth is particularly mythic, as by this point in English history it was no longer possible for a king to rule tyrannically (that had been settled by the English Civil war and the later “Glorious Revolution”); the actions complained of were very much those of parliament and the prime ministers of the day, but the picture of “the King” does seem to stick, and there are plenty of examples of absolute monarchs in history to draw upon. Parliament was, of course, elected – but not by a franchise which included the colonists, thus the cry of “no taxation without representation”.

I, however, grew up in the United Kingdom (note the word “Kingdom” here) and have lived my whole life in a kingdom in which the monarch is symbolic rather than having any real power, let alone any absolute power; Queen Elizabeth II models a monarch as servant representative of the people, and such influence as she exerts is persuasive rather than coercive. This is very much the model on which the surviving European monarchies are based as well, so it isn’t particularly unrepresentative. That said, monarchies outside Europe (and I’m thinking mostly of the Middle East) still tend to the repressive and coercive. Britain isn’t a perfect example of what a Christ-like kingdom should be (we’d have to do something radical about parliament and the bureaucracy to achieve that), but it’s queen is to my mind a good example of what a Christ-like ruler should be.

So I’m fairly comfortable with “kingdom” terminology, particularly as (as is mentioned in the comments to Bo’s post) virtually every English translation uses the term. I find problems with pretty much every possible alternative as well, so I’ll stick with the word. But I may take a little time to explain for my US readers that what I mean is nothing like the picture they have of the kingdom of George III!

Doing without Superman