John 14, LDS and mitzvot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s time for both in  my life.


Mystic reflections on a book about Panenthism

I couldn’t resist the title of “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” by Clayton & Peacock, not least because it had a title I wanted for my own writing, once I’ve dragooned that into something book shaped, rather than oversized blog posts. “Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World” looked good as well.

It didn’t disappoint, save for a couple of niggles, one of them admittedly a fairly big niggle. It’s a book for the student rather than the general reader, it seems to me, but is at the accessible end of that spectrum. It contains a set of essays by various extremely qualified authors, setting out a variety of views of how panentheism can be combined with a varyingly orthodox Christianity and in some cases with some features of modern science, in particular emergence theory; there are sections from an Eastern Orthodox point of view and from a more Western one, showing that the Orthodox tradition has far less trouble with panentheism than do the Western (Catholic and Protestant) streams of thought. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

My smaller niggle came from the piece by Celia E. Deane-Drummond, linking panentheism to the Wisdom tradition (and in particular the creation account in Proverbs 8:22-31). She rightly links this with the language of the preamble to the Fourth Gospel, equating Wisdom (Sophia) with Word (Logos) but fails to advert to what I consider the glaringly obvious connection between the two in the work of Philo of Alexandria, who so far as I can see made this leap sometime in the first 40 years of the first century, i.e. before any of the texts of the New Testament were written, even taking the earliest fancied dates of conservative scholars. Instead, she quotes a number of scholars who also do not seem to have made this connection. I would love to be able to point to a popular level discussion of Philo’s work, but I do not know of one.

My larger niggle is that nowhere in the book is a link made with mysticism, and indeed Philip Clayton expresses concern in his overview which ends the book that the use of panentheistic concepts should be grounded solidly in the believable rather than being understood as a philosophical flight of fancy (his own words are rather less florid). What he did not say was that panentheistic expressions flow extremely frequently from the particular mode of spiritual experience called “mysticism”. It is, in that context, not surprising that the Orthodox tradition is easier to harmonise with panentheism, as a substantial number of the major Eastern theologians are also identifiably mystics, including both St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximus the Confessor, both of whom are discussed at length in the book.

Indeed, it is my contention, following Happold, that the mystical experience is of a fundamentally panentheistic nature, even if it does not always result in clearly panentheistic statements from the mystics. On this point, the discussions in “In Whom We Live…” around the issue of harmonising panentheism with the Western tradition are extremely instructive; the West took, early on, a number of theological positions which are fundamentally at odds with a panentheistic experience of God, notably stressing divine omnipotence and omniscience, transcendence at the expense of immanence, divine impassibility (i.e. God is not changed or even moved by occurrences in the world) and a spirit-matter dualism of an extremely strong nature.

All of these flow from a philosophical treatment of the concept of God largely drawn from the pre-Christian Greek philosophers. Now, I do not even think that the God-concept of the philosophers is truly harmonisable with the God described in the Hebrew scriptures, and I have my doubts about the God-concept described in much of the New Testament being truly in line with the God of the philosophers as well. If it is also not harmonisable with the actual experience of God granted by mystical experience, then I suggest that the philosophers have got it wrong, and have produced exactly the philosophical flight of fancy which I referred to earlier.

I appreciate that the mystical experience is a minority one among Christians (I think this is a pity, but the only reasonably tried and tested praxis available within the Christian tradition proper is ascetic contemplation taking rather a lot of time, absent a “bolt from the blue”, and few these days seem disposed to put in the hours and endure the discomfort of doing this – and I can hardly blame them, given that even then a majority seem never to achieve anything like a peak experience). However, it is well documented, and occurs throughout the history of the religion, including in Happold’s view SS. John and Paul and, if the Gospel of Thomas is thought authentic, Jesus himself. Needless to say, I agree with Happold on this.

I have something of a beef with theologians who ignore the characteristics of the mystic’s experience of God (particularly as it can be plausibly ascribed to the three most important voices in the formation of Christianity), but doubly so when those theologians are discussing a concept of God which flows so naturally from it.

Better apologetics (more book reviews included)

A chance following of a link from a friend’s facebook feed led to me finding the Jericho Brisance blog, on which is a section labelled “Journey”. The writer, Matt Barsotti, is there chronicling his steady realisation that the scriptural foundations of his conservative Christian belief were untenable, together with the resulting loss of faith, and he does so very well, and very movingly.

I, of course, have moved in exactly the opposite direction, though I’ve ended up with complete agreement with Matt’s sources (just not with his disillusionment). By the age of about 9, I had decided that the entirety of scripture was exactly as believable as stories of Santa Claus or W.E. Johns’ “Biggles” books. In other words, it was complete fiction, possibly enlivened by some reference to actual history (as were some of the early Biggles books). However, at around 15 (it might have been 14, I’m not now sure which side of my birthday it occurred) I had a peak spiritual experience, species mystical, and embarked on a quest to find a way of repeating it and a language in which it could be talked about (and scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist just didn’t do the job for the second purpose).

(Incidentally, apologies to those who have read about this bit of my story in other posts; blogposts tend to be read individually, and it needs rehearsing for that reason).

As I shortly afterwards attended a lecture on Mysticism and bought Happold’s book on the subject, much of the search for a language centered round those religions whose mystics formed part of Happold’s anthology, while the search for repetition involved various occult groups as well, plus some “native religions” and their shamanistic practices. I was adequately convinced, before long, that most (if not necessarily all) major religions provided a functional basis in which mystics could find a language of expression, and that all their scriptures without exception needed to be viewed as something other than history. Some, I found, were very keen that their mythos be regarded as fact, others (such as Hinduism) regarded their myths much more lightly, and some (generally the modern pagan revivals) were arriving at the idea that their god-images were constructs.

I spent significant time exploring most of those which were accessible to me (much aided by a period at university where faith traditions which were unrepresented in my somewhat backwoods home town were available) at least far enough to get a decent picture of “how they ticked” from a believer’s perspective, and, of course, how their spiritual practices worked – and I tried the latter. Unsurprisingly, considering my working hypothesis, I found praxes from a wide variety of sources which seemed (in a purely anecdotal sense) to improve the chances of peak spiritual experience.

Now, among Happold’s anthologised writings were a couple from St. John and St. Paul, and a couple from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (which since Happold wrote the book have proved to be fragments of the Gospel of Thomas). The Oxyrhyncus fragments convinced me that Jesus was a mystic (or at least that the Jesus portrayed in Thomas was a mystic; if in fact he were not, there was a major mystic in the framework whose writings were attributed to Jesus). I had rather more difficulty with the apostles – they were very heavily Christ-focused, and my working hypothesis as to Jesus was that he was a human mystic with a particularly close connection with the divine, whereas both John  and Paul saw a sort of divinised figure only loosely connected with the human Jesus as being that entity with which they had connection. It took me quite a while (and a study of outright Christ-mystics such as Teresa de Avila, John of the Cross, Augustine, Thomas a Kempis) to see them as experiencing what they called Christ as what I had come to call God.

In the meantime, my favoured Christian mystics were pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and the writer of the Theologia Germanica, who wrote of God rather than of Christ. After considerable time, however, I arrived at the concession that while I did not think that the Jesus who taught in Palestine in the first century was equivalent to that which the Christ-mystics had experienced, post mortem the way in which Jesus had survived had become so much identified with God that I could treat them as merely using an alternative term for the root of what was effectively the same experience, and at that point St. John  and St. Paul began to open up for me to some extent (an opening up which is continuing – I still have some challenges with both).

Now, reading Matt Barsotti’s account of his slow and painful exit from Christianity, I note that he does seem on occasion to have had experiences which might potentially have given him a basis to develop a strong praxis leading to deeper experience. The trouble is that he was fixed with a whole rationale for faith based on an understanding of what the scriptures are which conflicts with science, archaeology, extra-Biblical texts and historical-critical scholarship, and he found that unsustainable – as he puts it “error in line one”. I have never been in that position, having never had any of this baggage.

Sadly, on at least two occasions (many years ago now) I know that my position has served to propel someone else into a path like Matt’s, ending in a lack of any faith whatsoever – I’ll call them Sue and Steve, though those weren’t their names. I would really prefer not to be the instigator of that kind of pain and loss, particularly if (as proved to happen with Sue and Steve) the result was a collapse of faith without a replacement understanding. My problem is that I do not know of any reliable way in which a peak unitive mystical experience can be forced (merely a set of practices which seem to encourage that assuming that you have already formed the pathways to get there through a prior experience). I can’t, therefore, say “do this and you will have an experience like mine, which will be self-validating”, only “I have found that doing these things tends to improve the frequency of such experiences if you’ve had one to start with” and without that it’s difficult for me to propose with confidence an alternative way to belief.

I ask myself if there is a way to move in the same direction as Matt, but to do so with a safety net of an alternative understanding which is at least reasonably proof against modernity. In my last post, I reviewed a really rather good attempt to provide such an understanding. I suspect that that would not have done for Matt, nor for Sue nor Steve. It is not aimed at a specifically Christian belief, after all, merely at one which sees validity in a sort of theistic belief of huge generality – as one might expect from a twelve-step desire to justify “a God of your understanding”.

Also among my recent reading has been “The Evidence for God” by Prof. Keith Ward. Prof. Ward is an Anglican clergyman and a philosopher and theologian of some note, having enough earned doctorates to satisfy any two or three lesser academics. I wonder, would that have helped? In fact, I don’t think so. Prof. Ward puts forward a very convincing “on balance” argument for the rationality of belief in a personal God, using his philosophical skills to do so (and in an eminently readable fashion), but it stops short of justification of a specifically Christian faith. I move on to “The Predicament of Belief” by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, which I have just finished reading.

This is an excellently reasoned and equally accessible book; it passes through some of the philosophical background with rather more speed than does Prof. Ward’s, accepts the major challenges to Christian belief (which it identifies as science, the problem of evil, religious plurality, the state of the historical record (i.e. the principal area which Matt found insuperable) and finally the claim of resurrection. It’s also aimed at preserving what it calls a “minimally personalistic theism” which will allow of acceptance of the most foundational Christian positions without compromising any adherence to science or historical method, particularly when bolstered by personal experience (which any rationalist needs to accept may well be evidence for them, but is not evidence for a disinterested outsider), and to my mind does it very well indeed. It even goes so far as to put up a philosophically sustainable argument for retaining a scientific-rationalist mindset and yet preserve a form of belief in a physical resurrection, should that be thought necessary or desirable. I doubt it would suffice as a tool for evangelism, but that’s not its aim; that is to permit someone with an existing commitment to Christianity to remain within at least the “liberal Christian” fold.

I have to ask, however, whether even this would have been enough to help Matt preserve even a minimal Christian identity (or Bart Ehrman, who is perhaps the best known individual to have trodden this path, and whose books form part of Matt’s path). The problem there is that having once accepted the inadequate and, to my mind, often downright false set of arguments for conventional evangelical Christianity (and I have in mind, for instance, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Nicky Gumbel as major proponents of these), to have them demolished involves a major loss of trust. I’m not sure how you would go about repairing that.

Any reader who has not so far vowed never to read my blog again (unless by chance they’re new to my thinking) is probably not going to be advancing the kind of apologetics I’ve been criticising here, but just in case some doughty soul has managed it, this is a plea to review your apologetics and try to advance the possibility, at least, that the standard evangelical model might, just possibly, not be entirely sustainable for all Christians. Just a possibility that it could be wrong (and that there are nevertheless possibly sustainable ways of maintaining a Christian faith) might be sufficient, sometime in the future, to prevent another departure to atheism or (at best) to the ranks of the “nones”.

Speaking for myself, I tend these days to be careful to avoid raising the objections to McDowell apologetics if there are signs that someone is getting too stressed by the suggestion. I don’t, after all, believe in salvation by correct intellectual conception. In addition, if someone has had any kind of spiritual experience, I strongly suggest that they hold on to that, and remember that you don’t have to understand someone in order to love them.

Emergence, twelve-step and ecology

There is a perennial problem for some people on entering a twelve-step programme, of which they get a glimpse at step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) and which becomes all too apparent at step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”). That problem is when they don’t have a concept of God, usually because they’re an atheist. In fact, it’s so common in UK twelve step that I was plagued in my early days with well-meaning people sharing how they had come to think of, say, the AA group, or “Good Orderly Direction” or just “Good” as being their higher power for the purposes of the steps, assuming that I’d be an atheist too. I got a little tired of having to explain that I had a very well-formed concept of God already, thank you, and that my problem was more that I had lost confidence in ever experiencing God again, not to mention being helped by God (severe depression, it seems, can do that to even a practiced mystic, and I’ve written previously about “dark nights of the soul”).

This was a problem which faced Nancy Abrams on entering a twelve step programme aimed at over-eating. She found an interesting way round, much aided by her long acquaintance with her husband Joel Primack, a prominent astrophysicist and cosmologist, and has written a fascinating book about it: “A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet”. This caught my eye last week, and on an intuition I bought it.

Amazon thinks it’s directed at “agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious and scientifically minded” readers; I’d bet she’d want to include outright atheists. Actually, I think it’s worth reading by a whole gamut of people, with the proviso that anyone with conservative or even mainstream views is going to find it’s suggestions alarming, if not downright unacceptable. Liberal, progressive or radical believers shouldn’t have too much difficulty, though.

I’m particularly pleased to have bought it, as Nancy takes the phenomenon of emergence and posits that God may be an emergent property of human minds as a group, which is a thought I’ve entertained myself – I grant that it doesn’t represent the way it seems to me that God is, but I am willing to consider hypotheses which would require that my own experience has delivered a less-than-wholly-accurate picture. Indeed, I assume there’s a high probability that despite the hugely self-confirming nature of the mystical experience, there’s at least a degree of distortion as well as the notoriously fuzzy nature of the experience. She, however, picks up the idea and runs with it, describing various levels of emergence and dwelling for a while on the ant colony, which displays organisation and reasoning beyond the capacity of any individual ant.

She goes on to discuss emergent phenomena among humans, citing the example of “the market” (here meaning that amorphous entity which seems to rule us rather more than do our elected representatives) and “the media”, which seems to have a character beyond just a conglomeration of writers. Then she takes the next step… and I think it’s by no means an unreasonable one.

Then, however, she introduces parameters some of which sit uneasily with my current God-concept, notably the limitation on communication of the speed of light, rendering an emergent entity bigger than (perhaps) planetary scale one which could not “think” within a timescale which would render it capable of communication with humanity. Another is the fact that until the emergence of human consciousness, the matrix for the emergence of such a higher level entity would be missing – and it would certainly be missing in the earlier part of the history of our universe (which the writer’s husband is able to model using computers to an impressive degree of accuracy). That, of course, would mean both that a God-of-the-universe would be improbable-to-impossible and that any concept of a creator-God was completely out of the window, and both of those are at the moment features of my God-concept, and considerably protected by the self-verifying feature of mystical experience. Not necessarily ruled out, however…

She does give what I think is a good account of the implications of accepting such a God-concept, including an account of the efficacy of prayer. That last I will need to re-read, as I am a little uncertain that I agree her mechanisms, but it is at least on the face of it plausible.

I think, therefore, that this book could be very helpful to many sceptical people embarking on twelve-step programmes, or even a few who have been around them for years – at the very least, it provides an option which is rather more concrete than “good orderly direction” and rather less prone to human error than the twelve-step group.

But I have a serious misgiving, and that lies exactly with the examples of higher-order emergence among humans which she puts forward. Neither the media nor the market (still less the “global economy”) seem to me good examples of higher powers for twelve-step or, indeed, more or less anything else (pace those of my acquaintance who look very much as if they worship the market…). The market and the global economy, indeed, seem to me forces which are potentially, even if not actually, extremely inimical to the flourishing of humanity when considered as thinking, feeling, connected, social people rather than as units of economic production and consumption, and I’d certainly characterise them both as less-than-human, if only on grounds of ethics. Crowds, too, inasmuch as through deindividuation they operate as entities in their own right, are definitely subhuman. If there were another entity of the kind Ms. Abrams describes, I would worry that unless it were in fact the God whom I experience (and thus am confident is benevolent and loving), it would be yet another faceless and impersonal power which had the capacity to damage or even exterminate humanity.

To be fair, I also have friends whose conception of Gaia looks a lot like that. Of course, both they and Ms. Abrams consider that we should do much to reverse the extremely negative effect which humanity is currently having on our planet and particularly its biosphere, and I agree completely with them on that front. The thought that the planet as a whole might decide (have decided?) to eliminate humanity as a kind of cancerous growth, however, is still not a pleasant one to contemplate. Even if it is possibly overdue… which may be the best indication that actually it doesn’t exist as such a system.

The problem, to me, with my Gaian friends is that while they see the wholeness and unity of the earth, there is a tendency to see us as alientated from it, as not a part of the whole. This is something I emphatically don’t share, and neither does Ms. Abrams, who ends her book with an impassioned plea to treat the planet as if we, as a species, actually intend to stay here for a while. To this end, she has a number of promises, some very reminiscent of those I am familiar with. Here are a few:-

We will intuitively understand how the future of our descendants depends on the future of their descendants.

We will experience how being human fits smoothly and perfectly into the evolution of a meaningful yet scientifically supported universe.

And, last but not least:-

We will suddenly realise that the emerging God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Atonement – God is not a dick

The deaths of the Maccabean Martyrs are described at some length in the book of 2 Maccabees. Antiochus Epiphanus (Epiphanus, a self-given title, meaning something close to “God with us”, and a tyrant who eclipsed anything the Romans were doing as at the early years of the first century) persecuted the Jews very generally, and a lot of martyrs are recorded as being killed for not being prepared to abandon various of the Mosaic commandments, frequently those forbidding contact with pigs. Seven in particular (together with their mother and teacher) are remembered especially. In the somewhat later 4 Maccabees the writer takes things a step further:-

“When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”  (4 Maccabees 6:26-29)

The tyrant [Antiochus IV] was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated. (4 Maccabees 17:21-22)

Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by mortals, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace …” (4 Maccabees 18:3-4)

4 Maccabees dates from either the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE, probably early. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the writers of the New Testament knew not only the story (the Maccabean restoration had already given rise to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah) but also this interpretation. It is also the only event recognised within Judaism in which humans are killed and this is considered an atonement.

As a result, when  I read the NT writers and see any mention of “atonement”, my initial assumption is that they are referring to the template of atonement set out in 4 Maccabees. This does not seem to occur to anyone around me, though. The Maccabean martyrs have, it seems, been virtually completely forgotten in the protestant West (they are actually venerated as martyrs in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly the former).

It is, of course, an integral part of the story of Maccabees that following the martyrdoms, things improved immeasurably for the Jewish population. History does seem to indicate that this was mostly due to the revolt of the Maccabees, which eventually forced on Antiochus the grant of some self-rule, which led to the eventual restoration of an independent state. Against this background, it is easy to see how some of Jesus’ followers would have seen him as a new Judas Maccabeus rather than a new Eleazar, and expected a revolt, but the template of Eleazar, the widow and her seven sons was still there.

It seems to me that with this background, there is no real need for other atonement theories. Granted, the text as it is might be some support for an exemplary atonement (Abelard), fits reasonably with Girardian end-of-scapegoat thinking and could readily have a Christus Victor interpretation added. It also contains the words “ransom” and “for the sin of the nation”, and thus is not completely inconsistent with the fairly early “ransom” theory, sharing the problem that it is unspecific who the ransom is paid to – though a naive reading might indicate that it is paid to Antiochus (and one might equally argue that Jesus’s death was “paid to” Caesar). The early proponents of the theory considered the debt due to Satan…

There is no suggestion of Anselm’s concept of assuaging an insult to God’s honour, nor yet of paying to God the (infinite) price of disobedience through sin in a Lutheran penal substitution manner. I note in passing that while the other concepts are somewhat enhanced by a resurrection, satisfaction and penal substitution are if anything undermined – it would seem, naively, that a death which is only temporary is of considerably less worth than a death which is permanent.

There is also no suggestion that God “provided” the Maccabean martyrs to enable him to forgive in circumstances in which he could somehow not otherwise bring himself to display his primary characteristics of love and mercy (markedly failing in the process to display omnipotence). That, I suspect, is entirely the fault of some infelicitous wording by Paul in Romans 3:25: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–“.

I note the variety of translations here. “Set forth”, “purposed”, “preordained”, “publicly displayed”, “proposed”, “presented”. It is clear that the various translators have had some challenges in finding an adequate term for the Greek “proetheto”, which has the literal meaning of “before-placed”. So God placed this event before us as an atonement, did he? That does not, I think, mean that his primary purpose for Jesus’ entire life was that he be a sacrifice, even a willing one. In part, at least, I would think that this is strongly suggested by the fact also relayed to us by Paul that Jesus was divinised on his resurrection, just as in 4 Macc. 18…

If that were not sufficient argument, however, note the words “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness”. The purpose is explicit; God wished to show US that he was righteous, that so great a self-sacrifice could not be left without a corresponding action of God’s, namely acceptance of the atonement (and, I would suggest, resurrection and elevation of Jesus). This, of course, clearly has to be “recieved by faith”, as there is no evidence that God treats the death in this way apart from the apostle’s word and, perhaps, the resurrection (although that could potentially have some other cause).

In my thinking, it also has to be “received by faith” as that is how the psychological mechanism works which permits us to feel better about ourselves when some member of our group acts heroically or when our leader does something commendable (the latter, sadly, being in somewhat short supply these days). The inverse, of course, also operates – I am invariably embarrassed when hearing of the idiocies or bigotries of other Christians, just as the Muslims of my acquaintance are embarrassed by the actions of ISIS.

I do, on occasion, note that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (which seems the only concept of atonement which my church understands, along with most evangelical and conservative Christians in the West) is actually the only one of the atonement theories which has real power to effect that psychological mechanism in a group of people notably including many in recovery from addiction and many with serious criminal records. This is unfortunate; I would, absent that, be suggesting that we wipe all mention of PSA from our theology books, our rituals, our speech and our thinking.

Why? Because, in the inimitable words of Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity, God is not a dick. The god-concept which is required for either satisfaction or PSA is of an unmerciful, legalistic, self-righteous prig. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the God I experience and worship.

But it does look a lot like Antiochus Epiphanus, who, if we follow through the logic of the “ransom” theory, was functioning as the embodiment of Satan.

Boundary markers?

On Saturday, Homebrewed Christianity will be holding “The Great Debacle”, a discussion between Tony Jones and Pete Rollins centering round the resurrection.

A couple of weeks ago I complained about feeling oppressed – and not least among the reasons was the fact that Tripp Fuller was arguing very strongly in favour of a bodily resurrection. Tony Jones also believes in a bodily resurrection, having blogged several times on the subject; Jason Michaeli is of the same mind, having an e-book “Preaching a better Atonement” which depends heavily on Tony’s blog posts.  All of them seem to think that an actual bodily resurrection is vital. The problem is that I can’t quite put my finger one why they think so, on what it actually does for them to believe this.

Cue a blog post from Bo Sanders, Tripp’s right hand man, where (inter alia) he asks “What difference does believing in something like the resurrection impact they way we live?“. Bo, it seems, also believes in a bodily resurrection.

Now, I don’t. Firstly, I am what can be described as “methodologically naturalistic”, meaning that I am always going to look for a naturalistic rather than a supernatural origin for any event, and that I tend to presume such an origin can be found. I say “tend to presume” rather than outright “presume” because I am willing to grant both that scientific rationalism does not (at least as yet) answer every possible question and because I hold out the small, perhaps vanishingly small, possibility that miracles (which by definition are incredibly improbable) may nonetheless sometimes happen – and if they ever did, all scientific and rational means would tell us that they didn’t.

So that preserves me from being a completely obdurate non -believer. It doesn’t, however, put me in the position of someone who would find it easy to arrive at even a 50/49 belief in such an event (1/99 would overstate my estimate of probability by a few orders of magnitude).

However, I also have another reason for considering that the resurrection was not a bodily resurrection, and that is that viewing all of the New Testament reports (including the reference by Paul to Jesus appearing to him last of all in 1 Cor. 15:4-8), treating them all as eyewitness accounts with as much accuracy as I would expect of eyewitnesses, I would come to the conclusion that what they report was not in fact a bodily resurrection, but a series of apparitions and “possession incidents”, at least one of the apparitions being a tangible one. I do this, incidentally, on the basis of having cross-examined a LOT of eyewitnesses over the years. That would not conflict with anything which I have experienced myself, apart from the possession, which I have witnessed a few times. I should stress that this view does not even require me to consider that anyone involved may have exaggerated their account, let alone falsified it; it holds assuming only that all the writers reported what people truthfully believed they had witnessed.

So, I do not consider that the scriptural witness supports a bodily resurrection, and that means that I cannot expect ever to get to the stage of belief in a bodily resurrection.

However, I do believe in a spiritual, or at least quasi-spiritual resurrection, in that I do think that Jesus actually (although not in a human body apart from where this was {potentially} a temporary possession) appeared to various of the disciples and to Paul. I don’t necessarily claim fully to understand the mechanism (though I fancy some of it might have something to do with Douglas Hofstadter’s “Strange Loop” thinking), but I have seen parts of it in actual operation, so I know it can happen. Also, I can see no other reason why the group of followers of Jesus began again to grow following his death – I don’t think that the phenomenon which leads to predictors of a millennium renewing their fervour after a disappointment holds good here, given the multiple previous failed messiahs in Israel.

Now, I can understand that at the time, certainly those of Jewish thinking patterns would not have been likely to consider that a resurrection could be anything other than in a physical body, in distinction from Greek thinking patterns which would allow of a disembodied soul or spirit. That said, I do not myself think that the pattern which is me can exist other than within a physical matrix of some kind (though it need not necessarily be the physical matrix which my consciousness is currently centered in); I do not agree with the body/spirit dualism of the Greeks. (This, incidentally, gives me some real problems when considering standard Trinitarian doctrines…).

The trouble is, in conversation with people of more orthodox viewpoints (and this would seem to include all the individuals named above, all of whom qualify as “progressive” and therefore with whom I would expect to identify reasonably), I find that this is a distinct stumbling block. And I cannot work out exactly why, as it seems to me that my actual belief about the resurrection can found all of the current templates of thought which could make a difference in the here and now.

I rather hope that Saturday’s “debacle” might provide some answers there, as from everything I hear I doubt that Pete Rollins would be able to state belief in a physical resurrection. On the other hand, he is (as I tend to be) far more interested in what the belief actually does within our lives, and so I expect some fancy footwork, so I may be disappointed.

Perhaps it is just that people really really want to maintain an expectation that gross physical miracles (as opposed, for instance, to miracles of healing) will actually happen in their lives? (Note, that is an expectation that they will rather than a small residual hope that they might – I can achieve a small residual hope on a good day myself…).

Then again, my suspicious mind wonders if this is more in the nature of a boundary marker to distinguish people from “those liberals” who “believe in nothing”. If it is, it is going to look to me rather lie those markers for groups which either demand that adherents do something which would transgress the normal standards of society or demand that adherents believe something which society in general would consider wrong or ridiculous. You need to give up something in order to join the group, and as most of Christianity doesn’t consider that giving up all your possessions is still a reasonable thing to ask (as per another recent post), perhaps this is that marker, or a part of it?

There are no Amalekites

Benjamin Corey has recently put up a blogpost, calling attention to the persecution of Palestinian Christians along with Palestinian Muslims. This follows on from an earlier very interesting post which decries the unthinking support of Israel which, it would seem, many evangelicals espouse.

First, the most recent post. I think Benjamin is right on the nail with his criticism. I can recall, back in the 1960s and 1970s, cheering on the Israelis as they defeated apparently massively superior forces of countries who were, at the time, bent on the destruction of Israel as a state. I was able at the time to forgive and forget to a great extent that the formation of that state was marked by a programme of terrorism against the forces of my own country, who were at the time mandated to keep the peace there as a result of a League of Nations resolution (though behind that resolution was a piece of empire building in the form of increasing areas of influence), and was not then yet aware of the following programme of ethnic cleansing which was carried out during the very early years of the new state.

After all, I thought, the Jews (in their complicated identity as partly a race and partly a religion) had had an immensely difficult time due to persecution by members of my own religion (over many years, not just the then fairly recent Shoah), and occasionally my own countrymen (there is a dreadful incident recorded in 1190 within 15 miles of my home). A secure home for them was not an unreasonable thing for the world to provide, I thought. Not knowing of the ethnic cleansing, I gave little thought to the pre-existing inhabitants, perhaps fobbed off with some mention of the previous owners being largely absentee Turkish landowners as a leftover from the Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine had been part for centuries. While there is some truth in that allegation, their tenants had been there for many generations, and their rights were not something I considered adequately.

Now, with more knowledge, I don’t think it is too strong to call what was done at the time “ethnic cleansing” despite the Israeli claim that in general the Palestinians left voluntarily, expecting (no doubt) to return with the victorious Arab forces. They may have – but that, to my mind, does not constitute abandonment any more than would the diaspora of Jews from the same area around two millennia earlier under the threat of first Greek and then Roman persecution, and Roman ethnic cleansing in 135. Indeed I’d argue far more for abandonment during some 1800 years than I would during, perhaps, 70 years.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that that ethnic cleansing has continued throughout the intervening years and is continuing today as the Israeli government and settlers expropriate more and more land from the Muslim and Christian (and no doubt Atheist, and whatever other faith) Palestinians.

However, I take issue with some of Benjamin’s argument in his earlier post.

Not the dismissal of dispensationalism – I hold to the idea of a fully realised eschatology, i.e. that everything predicted in the New Testament actually came to pass (insofar as it was ever going to) by the mid-second century at the latest. I do however consider that Jesus, as well as being a mystic and a political radical, was also an apocalyptic prophet (and before anyone suggests that everyone sees in Jesus what they are themselves, I am definitely not an apocalyptic prophet, and it is only under the influence of Jesus that my politics are becoming more radical than the liberal social democratic tradition I’ve spent most of my life supporting – mystic I plead to). Paul was also, so far as I can see, a mystic and a political radical (at least the Paul of the six undisputed epistles was), and an apocalyptic prophet – I think Paul confidently expected the new politics of Christ to be in control within a few years, possibly even with a second coming, and that clearly did not happen.

In particular, I see Revelation as being fully realised at the point when it was written, or very shortly after that. I think it speaks to the politics of the second century (and possibly the late first century) and cannot be taken  to suggest the politics of the twenty first.

No, what I dispute is Benjamin’s assertion that there is only one covenant (that laid down mostly by Paul, according to his argument) which overtakes the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. I do not think that Christianity should in any way continue the supersessionist theologies which to a great extent gave rise to the persecutions of which the nadir was the Shoah – if for no other reason that that has been their result over nearly two millennia. Yes, I know Paul was at pains to dissolve the boundaries between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians thrown up by requirements for circumcision and purity considerations centering around the Mosaic prohibitions on certain foods, but nothing Paul said, so far as I can see, dismissed the argument that the Abrahamic/Mosaic covenant continued untouched.

Romans 11:1 says “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” and Romans 2:12 “All who have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” which leaves me concluding that Paul did not consider the law to have been abrogated, nor that it was not still valid for those who “lived by the law”. I grant, he took a dim view of the chances of anyone actually avoiding sinning under the law (which I think speaks more to Paul’s psychology than to the impossibility of that task, due largely to many long and fruitful conversations with Jewish friends) and he may possibly have considered the land covenant to be no longer valid due to collective non-adherence (in which I think he would have had a far better argument). Yes, there is language about “cutting off” the branch of Judaism and “grafting on” that of the nascent movement of Jesus-followers (Rom. 11:19), but if Paul intends to say that the whole of Judaism has been “cut off”, I find that both contrary to the sense of his statement in Rom. 1:1 and substantially underdetermined by the text – quite apart from the fact that this would seem not to be so much cutting off a branch as uprooting the whole plant. I could on the other hand find it convincing that he was targeting the “Jewish Christian” attitude of requiring the whole law as well as following Christ, as Douglas Campbell thinks in “The Deliverance of God”.

In fact, Judaism (rightly in my eyes) identifies an Abrahamic and an arguably separate Mosaic covenant, according to some scholars, and also a Noahide or Noahic covenant, for a total of three covenants other than that written about by Paul, two if the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are considered to have identical scope.

What I do note, neglecting the possibility that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants do have different scope, is that the whole history of Israel as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures shows that the land covenant (i.e. the promise of the land of Israel, possibly in a somewhat wider sense than even the current boundaries of that state) is dependent on the population as a whole and in particular its leaders following the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. And in those we see (relating to non-Jews within Israel) a requirement to love the stranger (Deut. 10:19), not to wrong the stranger in speech (Ex. 22:20) and not to wrong the stranger in buying or selling (Ex. 22:20). I could reasonably mention also Ezekiel 16:49 which explains the “sin of Sodom” as inhospitable and uncharitable behaviour, noting that in Genesis 19, this includes attempted rape of visitors.

I do not think it too great a stretch to suggest that the government of Israel and significant numbers of its population are in flagrant breach of several, if not all of these. In those circumstances, I see no scriptural reason to support the continued land covenant in any way, not for Christians and not for Jews either. Of course, were they to start acting in a loving way and redressing the wrongs done to the now and former non-Jews living within the state, that would then be a different matter.

I do, however, leave it entirely to the Almighty as to whether he wishes to visit on Israel the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah!

I also do not think that either the Palestinians or neighbouring Arab countries should see themselves as the agents of divine punishment of Israel, as once the Egyptians, Babylonians or Persians were so viewed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they should certainly be deterred diplomatically from acting in that way.

There is, of course, another worry in the back of my mind. Judaism recognises not ten commandments but 613 “mitzvot” (a mitzvah has a connotation more of “good deed” than of “commandment”). Here’s a list of them, with the verses of scripture they’re taken from. It is instructive to note that six of them (601, 602, 607, 611 to 613) relate to conduct in respect of the seven Canaanite nations, Ammon, Moab and Amalek. In every case, the implication is that a war of extermination, of genocide, is mandated. Note in particular that the last three are considered still to be “live” commandments.

Now, I do not think it reasonable to label any of the nations or peoples in or around Israel as being identical to, or the successors to, any of those historical nations. Frankly, in the light of the history of the area, their ancestors are more likely to have been in part Jewish than to be clearly identifiable as coming from one of those historical nations. That said, I am aware of (for instance) at least one parliamentary commander (Thomas Fairfax) in the English Civil War ordering his troops to lay into the opposing Cavaliers with the words “Smite the Amalekites”; Luther (in common with several other Christian leaders before and since) called the Jews “Amalekites”, in a piece of amazingly bad supersessionist theology. During World War II and thereafter, with rather more justification, Hitler and the Nazi party were identified by some, Jews and Christians alike, as new Amalekites. The bite of these biblical commandments has not, therefore, gone away.

In passing, there’s some good discussion of this type of position in the Hebrew Scriptures, with particular reference to the Book of Joshua, in this post from Larry Behrendt and its comments.

These days, there is a worrying movement in Israel to treat the Palestinians as Amalekites, just as in the past Christians have found in these passages an excuse to treat Jews or other Christians as Amalekites, though since at least Maimonedes the mainstream Jewish view has been that the Amalekites can no longer be distinguished and that no new group can be so identified. Happily, I do not know of any case where Islam has used these passages in the same way, but as Islam fundamentally accepts the Jewish and Christian scriptures as previous revelations, I cannot discount the possibility. As is well known, Islam has its own problematic scriptures, however, but as with Judaism and Christianity, the bulk of scholars have wrestled with their problematic texts and do not consider them valid in present day circumstances.

Why am I rabbiting on about this at this moment? Well, an acquaintance (in the face to face world) was recently comparing ISIS to the Amalekites (as well as to Nazi Germany). Every time this comes up, I think it is incumbent on those of us who do not consider these ancient texts to have any power to command us these days to speak out. There are no Amalekites in the world today, and if there were, we should still treat them as human beings and not as untermensch.