Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…)

(This post was created for and first appeared on The Way Station blog)

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, are the familiar words of 2 Timothy 3:16, written, probably, by a sincere follower of Paul borrowing his name sometime during the first century. You may know it as “all scripture is inspired”, and you probably learned that the words were written down by Paul himself – and so they referred to themselves immediately, as this is part of what we now understand as “scripture”.

Passing swiftly over the issue of whether we should take this proof text for inerrancy seriously, given that on this understanding it is saying that it’s “theopneustos” itself, and most people would not take a claim of inerrancy seriously from someone who just declared that they were inerrant – even the Pope – the question has to arise as to what Paul (or pseudo-Paul) actually meant by both “theopneustos” and by “graphe”, the word we see translated as “Scripture”.

The thing is, in the context of the time, “graphe” didn’t have all the baggage attached to it which we attach to “scripture”, and which is what potentially scares us. Everyone using the word prior to 2 Timothy meant by “graphe” just “writings”. Paul definitely did have a concept of what was to be regarded as authoritative; he writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (my italics), which refers to Moses striking the rock to produce water in Exodus 17:1-7 at Meribah – but later on, in Numbers 20:7-12, he again strikes a rock to produce water, and the text says “These were the waters of Meribah”. And Hebrew commentators determined that the rock must have followed the Israelites through their journey through Sinai.

The proof-text for that interpretation is “Now He led His people out into the wilderness; for forty years He rained down for them bread from Heaven, and brought quail to them from the sea and brought a well of water to follow them. And it [the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountains with them, and went down into the plains” which is to be found in Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15 (and pseudo-Philo is quoting earlier Jewish tradition, probably the Tosefta, there). So Paul, the putative writer of 2 Timothy, was there treating as authoritative a text which does not appear in either the Jewish nor the Christian collections of sacred writing which we now regard as “scripture”.

Likewise, the writer of Jude references The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, better known as 2 Enoch – and no, you will not find that even in your Apocrypha, should you ever delve into those books which formed part of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures) but were not accepted as part of the Jewish Canon when that was finalised (somewhat later than was the Christian one) and which therefore were rejected by Luther and his followers and thus don’t appear in most Protestant Bibles.

There are also a host of documents, including gospels, letters, apocalypses and others, produced in the early years of Christianity which did not get incorporated into the Bible most of us know. Some of the “oriental” churches have one or more additional books, the most extensive being the Ethiopic church, but the Catholic and Protestant churches and most of the Orthodox have the same New Testament canon.  Most of them were excluded for good reason (generally, in the first case, because they were not popular enough among the mainline churches of the day), but all of them cast interesting light on what the Christians of their day actually believed, and echoes of some still persist in more modern times. Interestingly, if you are familiar with any of the cycles of mediaeval Mystery Plays, some of those do incorporate scenes which are more reminiscent of (for instance) the Infancy Gospels than the actual Biblical text (I was fortunate enough to play Annas in the Butchers Play in the 1998 production of the York Cycle).

A substantial number of those tend to be condemned as “Gnostic Gospels”, and as Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy at a fairly early stage, Christians tend to avoid them. Actually, they tend to live in fear of anything which might be considered “Gnostic” in a way which doesn’t seem to affect most other traditional heresies… Gnosticism is, it seems, big and scary!

Gnosticism is characterised by two main features; firstly it conveys a “secret meaning” which only initiates are taught, and secondly it regards the Old Testament God as not being the One True God, but an imposter – and I’ll come back to the second of those!). It also tends to an “emanationist” concept of creation, which is otherwise typical of Jewish arcane and mystical traditions, in which God’s creation comes down to us in stages via a set of realms until, eventually, it is the material world, which is seriously debased; the Old Testament God is one such subordinate emanation.

However, of course, the canonical Gospel of Mark regularly talks of keeping things secret (such as almost every miracle recorded there and much of the teachings), John has private discourses with the apostles and Paul talks of at least two levels of understanding in faith, so the mere concept of a “secret meaning” is not exactly foreign to mainstream Christianity either.

Among the “Gnostic Gospels” as usually put forward is the Gospel of Thomas, which is unique as being a “sayings gospel”, just recording sayings of Jesus. Frankly, it is not significantly more “Gnostic” than many of (say) Paul’s letters, but it was found initially among many other documents which did display Gnostic leanings. However, significant numbers of liberal Christian scholars regard it as potentially being a very early document indeed, and possibly pre-dating the four canonical gospels, at least in its original form. As perhaps a preponderance of scholarship tends to think that the canonical gospels rest on the foundation of a now lost “sayings gospel” (as well as an equally lost account of events, often referred to as “Q”), even if Thomas is not as early as some claim, it is a fascinating glimpse into what the origins of our current New Testament might have been.

It is also, for what it’s worth, the source of a couple of sayings which were responsible for me deciding that Christianity was worth investigating as a language of expression of relationship to God.

Many scholars have also decided that there are traditions in some of the less theologically mainstream non-canonical materials which actually date back far further; a recent vogue is for elements in the Gospel of Peter, and Robert Eisenman makes much of the epistles of Clement and of the Dead Sea Scrolls (notably the War Scroll) in his “James, the brother of Jesus” (I grant you very controversially).

Finally, I’d suggest that no-one contemplate forming a view of the many New Testament references to Atonement without reading 2 Maccabees (apocrypha) and 4 Maccabees (extra-canonical), which talk of the Maccabean martyrs as “atoning”.

You can therefore understand a great deal more about the New Testament and about the times it was set in by not being afraid of the documents some of which are accepted as scripture by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church but not by the Protestant churches (apocrypha), some of which are only accepted as such by more exotic Eastern churches and some of which plainly were accepted at one time or another by churches but which now aren’t.

But those are not the only scriptures which we seem to be afraid of, and part 2 will look at that…

Taking arms against a sea of existentialists

Having just completed editing a short introduction to Christian Existentialism (look out for “To Be Or Not To Be” from David Moffett-Moore in the near future), I was grateful to Partially Examined Life’s blog for links to two talks on Kierkegaard. (The good news is they’re around 15 minutes each, the bad news is they’re very condensed.) Dr. Moffett-Moore uses the words of one fictional gloomy Dane as an introduction to those of another real one, which is a touch I much appreciate.

I am also at the moment reading through Paul Hessert’s “Christ and the End of Meaning” with Peter Rollins’ patreon group. (By the way, I strongly recommend that no-one buys the book at the price I’m seeing it at today on Amazon – the price always skyrockets when the book is being used for a course or is copiously referred to online, and then generally relaxes to something more reasonable, as it’s out of print and there tend to be relatively few copies available, but also normally relatively few people who want a copy.)

Meaning, as far as Hessert is concerned in chapter 1, is equivalent to purpose, telos or, as the scholastics would have it, “final cause” (a description which jars with me, as my scientific background makes me restrict “cause” to efficient cause). This is very much the operating area for Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him. It is not, of course, the first meaning I would understand from the word “meaning” (I’ve just demonstrated that first meaning in action!), that being the relationship between a sign or symbol and the thing signified by the sign or symbol. That kind of meaning is the one which Derrida (perhaps playfully) said his objective was to destroy, and happily Hessert apparently does not think that Christ was a type of Derrida (or vice versa)…

I am only at present at chapter 3 of Hessert, but his major thesis is already clear in chapter 2 – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. It offends both systems of seeking meaning, as a supernatural intervention for the Jews or as a revelation of divine order for the Greeks. For Judaism, the Messiah (Christos) was to bring in an era of peace in which Israel is the nation to whom other nations defer – and he would reign as King over Israel on behalf of God, having a long life and many children. Not, absolutely not, an early, childless, death on the cross closely followed by the destruction of the Temple and a new exile for the Jews. The death of the Christos undoes the expected telos, of a Jewish renaissance and permanent preeminence among nations (at the very least). No wonder Paul calls his preaching a “skandalon”, the root of our words “scandal” and “scandalous”.

For the Greek (and by this time Roman) mode of thinking, we need to think more along the lines of complete failure being revealed as the ultimate meaning of existence. The insight into the underlying order of things which was expected from divine revelation was the death of the person identified with the ruling principles of the universe – more, indeed, than Derrida’s “destruction of meaning”; something best exemplified, in this day in which we are used to the idea of Christ crucified, by Niezsche’s “God is dead” as picked up by Thomas J.J. Altizer, which caused huge outrage, not least when my local vicar preached on the topic in a televised service in the early 70s!

A foolishness, said Paul; more a total absurdity. Though, of course, existentialism did eventually lead to movements such as Dada… Jesus was identified as the Logos, and one of the meanings ascribed to Logos in Greek thinking was “intelligible principle of existence” – a little like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, which he now doubts can be discovered, even assuming such a thing exists. For a physicist, the lack of any possibility of a foundational theory might be similarly disorienting – but then, for the most famous Physicist of recent times, Albert Einstein, it was inconceivable that everything rested on chance; he famously said “God does not roll dice”. And yet, most of Quantum Mechanics rests on the assumption that yes, things are, at root, probability densities.

One thing which strikes me forcibly, bringing these things together, is that Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins all seem to me to be practising a variant on the evnagelical formula for conversion. In that formula, firstly one has to persuade people that they are sinners and they are damned unless they accept Christ, a task which is increasingly difficult to achieve in the more and more secular and irreligious society I live in. “Good news; you’re all damned to eternal conscious torment” tends not to preach well in the climate of today. In much the same way, Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins want to persuade us that there is a fundamental absurdity about existence. Kierkegaard in particular suggests that we need to become anxious about our rootlessness, and condemns those who adhere to conventional systems of meaning without radical questioning which pulls the metaphorical carpet out from under our concepts of reality as being “inauthentic”.

It also strikes me that Hessert is proof texting, choosing a small passage from 1 Corinthians and loading it with theological significance (though he does allude to some passages from Galatians and Romans as well). I love speculative theology, but this does feel as if the selected passage is inadequate to bear the load he wants to impose, even when bolstered from elsewhere in Paul. Paul did, clearly, want to destroy the conventional Jewish and Greek concepts of how the world works, but he promptly spent most of the remainder of his seven authentic epistles loading up his concept of “Christos” with meaning (read Romans if you are not immediately convinced!). This was meaning both in the sense of telos and in the sense of signification; Paul thought the messianic age was already upon us, albeit it did not look like the conventional Jewish picture, and that Christ genuinely represented an insight into a new concept of reality, and not one which was fundamentally absurd, at least not to someone who had experienced the paradigm shift which Paul encouraged.

Granted, if Paul had been accurate when he dictated “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, things might have been different, but that was clearly rhetorical exaggeration. If he seemed to be resting for a moment in Holy Saturday (the only time I think Hessert’s approach might work), it was, for Paul, only clearing the ground in order to erect a new structure of meaning. Indeed, I think Hessert’s book would make a fine basis for any service on Holy Saturday, the day between the tragedy of crucifixion and the exhilaration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, the day when “God is dead” makes the most sense in terms of the story of the gospels.

However, let’s just let Hessert have his way for the moment. What if there in fact IS no overarching purpose for existence; what if there IS no “theory of everything”? Is Christianity (or, at least, Paulianity) really the theological Dada or Punk, as Peter Rollins suggests? It’s tempting to suggest that existentialist concerns are totally anachronistic to Jesus’ teachings or Paul’s writings, but the first person to write “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it’s absurd) was Augustine, in the fourth century…

We will go ahead and invent some meanings. As the much underrated philosopher Terry Prachett says, we are not so much homo sapiens (the knowing man) as pan narrans (the story-telling ape). We have developed with a propensity to see patterns in things, even when there are no patterns there (cloud castles, pictures in the emberse of a fire, fortunes from tea-leaves…). As the Norse epic Havamal puts it, “Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself too soon must die, but one thing never, I ween, will die, — fair fame of one who has earned [it].” The creator of the gloomy Dane and of “to be or not to be” is read and performed wordwide 400 years after his death, and his fictional creations such as Macbeth and Prospero are world-famous – and his pictures of various English kings skew our appreciation of history to this day. We are going to tell stories about the world around us, come what may, whether they be grand narratives or scientific explanations of everyday phenomena. OK, there is value in not treating those stories as more than what they are – some of them may, perhaps, correspond exactly to the world as it actually is, but that is not demonstrable, and the history of Science indicates that there is always likely to be a better story (or theory) which can predict what happens a bit more accurately than the ones we have now.

Which stories should we adopt? Well, Terry Pratchett also wrote, in “Lords and Ladies” “The Monks of Cool, whose tiny and exclusive monastery is hidden in a really cool and laid-back valley in the lower Ramtops, have a passing-out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.” In terms of style, that works perfectly well – but in terms of practicality, it might be better to select the mackintosh rather than the Hawaiian shirt if rain is forecast. If you’re not worried about getting wet and cold in order to preserve your cool, however? Maybe the Hawaiian shirt is better (granted, that’s a choice I would never make myself…)

I can always wear something different, or listen to a different story tomorrow…

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

I’ve been reminded today of Ursula LeGuin’s brilliant short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (from “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”). While I strongly recommend that you read the actual story, it tells of a land where everyone is happy and well provided for – except one poor, retarded child, kept in appalling conditions and never to be spoken to kindly (if at all), a child who, moreover, once knew happiness and a loving family. The thesis is that the happiness and prosperity of the rest of the citizens is entirely dependent on the misery of that child; it is absolutely necessary for it to continue that the child be kept miserable. Adolescents are, at a certain age, shown the child, and the reason for keeping it so. Some of them, at that point, start walking, and walk all the way out of Omelas – presumably to another land which is far less attractive than is Omelas; others reach adulthood and, eventually, reach the same point and start walking.

There is a conservative interpretation of “the poor will always be with us”, which argues that it is inevitable in our society that some will be poor. This is, indeed, the inevitable end-point of neoliberal economics – there are going to be winners and losers, and a certain viewpoint argues that the losers need to be destitute in order to provide the appropriate incentive for people to strive to be winners. Indeed, that viewpoint is inclined to imitate the imperative in Omelas never to speak a kind word to the child, and label the unsuccessful as “shirkers”, “freeloaders”, “layabouts”, “parasites” or “deadbeats”. No doubt you can add several other pejorative expressions, particularly if you read some of the tabloid press.

Added to that, there is such paranoia at the idea that someone might just possibly get something they are “not entitled to” that those claiming benefits are made to feel like garbage (and probably criminal garbage) just for claiming, and people are removed from benefits for trivial reasons – or no good reason at all. Not a few of them are then so desperate that they take their own lives. Others end up living on the street…

If that is indeed the society in which I live, I want to walk away from it. Even if, which I do not believe, the poor did “deserve” their fate, I cannot be like Thomas Aquinas, who wrote Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

It is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity, in which grace (entirely undeserved benefits) is key, and God provides whether or not we toil or spin. We are, as Teresa de Avila remarked, the hands of Christ in the world. How can we not, communally, look after the least in our society?

The bad news, perhaps, is that there is nowhere to walk to. Globalism is ensuring that neoliberalism is everywhere.

The good news, the gospel, if you like, is that unlike Omelas, our society doesn’t have to be like this. We can be Christ’s hands, and feet, and body, and together makes something better.

Taxation, theft and violence

There is a very commonly used argument among conservative (with a small “c”) commentators that, when you transfer the implementation of social gospel principles to government, this is government taking from individuals what is theirs under the threat of force; many such commentators go on to describe this as “theft” or even “armed robbery”. I made an argument against this view on a number of grounds recently. It is, however, a powerful point, as I think there is little argument against the concept that Christians should be non-violent – aside practicality, which I would argue shouldn’t sway us from the general principle, just remind us that we still have to live in a “fallen” world.

Thinking further, however, the very idea that money “belongs to” us rests on the threat of force by government (if not by us – absent government, all we would have is force or persuasion, and persuasion rarely works against robbers) – if someone takes from me the notes and coins in my pocket, my recourse is to the criminal law, which considers that theft – and the criminal law is backed by force. If my bank refuses to pay when I issue a cheque or use my debit card, I need to rely on the civil courts to force them to abide by their contract – and again, that is ultimately backed by force (as at least one possible end-result of suing the bank would be for bailiffs acting on my behalf forcibly to appropriate some of the bank’s property).  Of course, the “value” of money is very arguably a fiction in the first place – when I “spend money” I am exchanging for actual goods or services something which has no intrinsic value of its own, any “value” of which rests on other people’s belief that it is exchangeable for other goods or services. One might say that this was a religion, being a belief-based system…

Those who propose this “taxation is theft” concept are pretty much universally free marketeers; they consider that bargains made between individuals (assuming a “level playing field” are a guarantee of prices being fair and reasonable. But such bargains are again contracts, and contracts can be broken (I hand over my goods and you refuse to pay…) with the ultimate sanction being force.

There’s an interesting (if over-long and over-provided with debating points rather than substantive argument) discussion online between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux, the fundamental issue of which is what Joseph calls “structural violence”. If you take something more like Joseph’s view, which I agree with, it is a part of the structure of a competitive economy which functions in a culture of scarcity that violence will be the result. (Incidentally, the link I give is from Joseph’s You Tube and describes it as a victory for Joseph; I have little doubt that if there’s a link from Molyneux, that would describe it as a victory for Molyneux. I doubt partisans of either would be convinced to change their views…)

Each of them has a favorite illustration, which I think is significant. Joseph’s is of the failure of a company he used to be employed by, and of the misery caused to employees who could not recover their wages; homelessness was one result. Molyneux’s answer to that was, firstly, to concentrate on the employee who was forced by his visa requirements (characterised as a government interference with the free market) to continue working although not being paid, and secondly to point to the existence of a corporation and bankruptcy laws (characterised as a government interference with the free market) as protecting the employer (in the last resort) from having to pay the wages. Other employees were, of course, constrained in the same way by the absence of jobs to go to (and the fear of resulting homelessness and starvation) and, absent government, would have been reduced to threats to the individual or individuals who owned the company to recover anything. I might add that, absent government restrictions on immigration, even people in Molyneaux and Joseph’s privileged position of being versatile, able and intelligent people able to obtain alternative jobs easily might not be enough – there are doubtless very many people in (for instance) India who would be very glad to do the same work for far less remuneration…

His third answer was to suggest that the company was clearly one which deserved to fail, and that Joseph was thereby liberated to pursue something which he did better. I pretty much equate this argument to that of Conservatives in this country who consider that cutting benefits to the unemployed “helps them to find work” by incentivising them – and that I equate to an suggestion that if you have excess food and your neighbour is starving, you are helping him magic food from nothing by refusing to share your own food.

Mostly, there are not jobs to go to in either of our countries unless you are very versatile, able and intelligent – and even then there may be nothing suitable, and the vast majority of people, as I learn from survey results, are only two or three pay checks from starvation and homelessness.

Molyneux’ preferred illustration was of his daughter selling lemonade at the side of the road; if, he suggested, she was not providing something which passers by wanted, or was not making a purchase as attractive as possible, she would not sell lemonade and would then be free to pursue some other avenue. This, of course, is an absolutely idealised example of a free market transaction, one in which daughter does not actually need to sell lemonade if she is to eat or be housed that day, and in which the passer-by almost certainly has absolutely no need of a drink of lemonade. Sadly, Joseph did not capitalise on the fact that this transaction was nothing like most transactions which occur.

But, of course, Molyneux would probably say that almost every transaction which we undertake is in some way distorted by the presence of government – and he would be right in saying that. His assumption is, however, that the influence of government is always negative rather than positive, and that is something which I absolutely do not agree with. Indeed, his absolutely free market system depends itself on government enforcing contracts…

Back to practicality, which I wish we could dispense with. There is going to be a need for the threat of force whatever system we adopt. Even the Acts church which we look to as a possible ideal had its own threat of force in the story of Ananias and Saphira, granted that was supernatural force. More recently, there have been denominations which have been very largely non-violent – the Quakers or the more modern Anabaptist traditions, for instance. They, however, have generally practiced shunning – an effective expulsion from their ranks of those who do not conform to expected standards – and that could colourably be regarded as a kind of passive violence, besides which it goes against the massively inclusive message of Jesus; tax collectors and sinners are your neighbours and you should love them, not shun them.

With some reservation, therefore, I reject the libertarian objection that taxation involves violence in favour of the absolute injunction to love your neighbour as yourself – and, as a community, taxation is the primary way in which we provide necessary care for our neighbours.

Taxation in order to pay for foreign wars, however, is another story!



Tribes (interlude)…

Interesting cartoon on how tribalism makes communication more difficult.