Myths, metaphors, mysteries and making it up: theology meets fiction

(This is another post which first appeared on The Way Station blog).

There is a saying which I’ve seen variously attributed to African, Amerind and Asian wise men, which goes “I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.

A little while ago, I blogged on the back of a short story by Ursula le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (here’s a link if you’re interested), which is most definitely “made up”. On the other hand, through an entirely fictional place and people, it conveys a really important truth about how I, at least, feel about morality, and in particular the utilitarian concept that the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good. It rests on the concept that the entire happiness of an otherwise idyllic, utopian society is founded on them keeping a vulnerable innocent in appalling conditions, and never even speaking a kind word to the victim – and, on learning of this truth about their society, some elect to walk away, then or later, despite leaving also all the positives of their society.

Now, the blogger who reminded me of the story was using it as a metaphor (or, probably strictly speaking, an allegory, which is an extended and often more symbolic metaphor) for the church – and it made sense and conveyed, I think, a truth about the church. I used it as a metaphor for western society, and in particular the society of the UK in which I live. It doesn’t aspire to the category of myth – myths are the great stories, the archetypes of human interaction or of the identity of a people. The story within the story of Omelas is, for the society described, a myth (as are our British legends of King Arthur, a foundational myth) – Ms. leGuin writes science fiction and fantasy, so within the logic of the story, it might be true, and in that event it would be a true myth,  or it might be false, in which case it would still be a myth, but the happiness of Omelas would not actually necessarily depend on their continued cruelty. As it is clearly a foundational myth, though, tinkering with it might well produce unanticipated consequences even if there is no material causal link between the misery of the innocent and the wealth and happiness of the society, which is why I use the caveats “necessarily” and “material”. One such possibility lies in the works of Rene Girard; the innocent may be functioning as a scapegoat, and thereby actually contributing to the peace of the society through psychological rather than material mechanisms.

The thing about metaphor, allegory and myth is that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether “it happened this way”, the truth (or falsehood) of one of these literary figures is in how we apply it to situations in the real world – and it is then true to the extent that we are able to construct such an application.  A similar example is a joke – if I say “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar”, you are not going to ask me where the bar was, or what an imam was doing in a bar anyway, or when this happened, far less whether it happened. Those are just not the point – the point is in the punchline (which is “and the barman says ‘this is a joke, isn’t it?’ “).

Similarly, when Jesus told parables, they were metaphors or allegories; it wasn’t important whether they happened that way (or at all), the message what in what you took from them. We are quite happy with the idea that Jesus made up these stories on the spot to illustrate a truth (or sometimes several truths) which were outside the stories themselves. Happily, even my most fundamentalist friends realise this.

However, when we are talking of events in the life of Jesus which are recounted in the gospels, the more conservative among us suddenly become very concerned about whether things happened this way – where the bar was, in other words – and it becomes very difficult to get beyond that.

There is a quite excellent book by John Dominic Crossan called “The Power of Parable – How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus”, which treats the narrative history of Jesus contained in the gospels as story, not asking whether it happened this way, but what lessons we can draw from those stories today. This just ignores the issue of “whether it happened like that” and looks at a selection of stories from the gospels purely on the basis of what these stories can tell us about the situations we are in now.

The trouble is, I suspect that my more conservative friends would really not be able to glean anything from it, because Crossan is taking as read the fact that the gospel writers were adjusting their stories in order to make their own points…

It rather recalls to me discussions on the old Compuserve Religion Forum, where a wide variety of people were posting, from absolutely fundamentalist Christians through very liberal ones to atheists, agnostics and followers of other religions – the objective there was to discuss the religion, not to proselytise or fellowship. There were permanent problems actually getting a viable conversation going between these viewpoints, as the fundamentalists permanently homes in on whether the Bible was an inerrant historical (and scientific) account. Where I found an avenue to better discussion was in saying “let’s set on one side whether it happened that way, leaving biblical criticism and theology for later, and discuss application – how does this account impact your life at the moment?”

That way, we could sometimes manage to avoid the issue on which the two sides were never going to agree, and have sensible discussions. Not infrequently, the result was that a biblical inerrantist and a non-supernaturalist materialist could actually agree on the meaning of a passage, and that ultimately it was the application which mattered to them.

And they “got the joke”…

On the other side of the “end times”…

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.


I am who I am…

There has been an interesting discussion on The Jesus Blog of the use in Mark 6:50 of the words “ego eimi” (in the Greek), meaning in a literal way “I am”. One might think that this is not a basis for much theological speculation, but this is a famous couplet which, in its use in John 8:58 is one of the relatively few places in scripture which people use to assert that Jesus claimed to be God (rather than that his followers claimed this). “Jesus said unto them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

(Note – my links are to an online Greek-English interlinear, and there’s a need to scroll down to the last page in both cases).

I’ve written about this before, but now the identification of the use of what is, let’s face it, just the words “I am” seems to be spreading well outside that instance, I think it’s worth another look.

The issue is, of course, that in Exodus 3:14, it is stated “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. And he said ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”‘”. In the Hebrew original, the phrase is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” (and “I am who I am” is only one of several potential translations suggested for it; “I am who I will be” is also a popular version, and in the link I give next, the translation is “I am the being”). The Greek version of this in the Septuagint uses the words “ego eimi”. Actually the phrase is “ego eimi ho on”, which would naturally translate “I am the being”. “Ego eimi” is not, for what its worth, susceptible of quite as many alternative translations into English as is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh”, but does capture some of the potential sense.

From this, theologians have long re-read John 8:58 as “before Abraham was, I am [I AM]”, making it a direct claim of identity with the God of Exodus. This has been particularly attractive due to the need to infer an extra verb (see the square brackets above). “Ego eimi” is used quite a lot of times in John; nowhere in the synoptics is there much language from Jesus stating what he is, but the Fourth Gospel has a particular agenda, made obvious by its preamble (John 1:1-18). It is THE wording used by proponents of Lewis’ trilemma, a tool of evangelism which I particularly hate.

Let me recapitulate my feelings about this passage. Firstly, if the natural meaning of the passage is indeed “I am God”, given that its context was in a discussion with scribes and pharisees, had Jesus said it, his life expectancy would have been measured in minutes rather than (as the gospel would have it) a year or two. At the most, therefore, the passage must have been seen as ambiguous by the writer; at the least, the extra verb to be inferred must have been “was” at the end, so it would read “before Abraham was, I AM [was]”; the inference to be drawn from that would then be that Jesus claimed particular knowledge granted to him by his God, who of course pre-existed Abraham and therefore knew the things in question.

In fact, however, I do not view the author of the Fourth Gospel as reporting Jesus’ actual lifetime words most of the time (and nor do a very substantial number of biblical scholars), I view him as reporting what he thinks Jesus might have (or ought to have) said in the circumstances reported. In the process, he is keen to show the priestly and scholarly elite countered and confounded by some clever wording and (in the case of the exchange with Nicodemus) ambiguous terminology. To use a phrase capable of multiple interpretations, one of which might indicate a high Christology but others of which might be entirely mundane, would be quite in keeping with the rest of his usage.

I do not in saying this, incidentally, suggest that the writer was fabricating in a deplorable way; I am quite confident, from the preamble, in identifying the author as a mystic with a striking similarity to the entirely Jewish Philo of Alexandria (much of whose thinking on the logos is recapitulated in precis in John 1) who is specifically a Jesus mystic. I see him as interpreting his mystical experience of God through the filter of identifying this as an experience specifically of Jesus (hence all the “I am” statements), and this is very much a cosmic Christ rather than a mundane Jesus. However, it is still not necessarily the case that the author saw Jesus as ontologically equivalent with the God of Abraham; he could have considered him as “principal agent” through whom God worked, or indeed as the material representation of that principal agent.

At the most, therefore, I see ego eimi here as being deliberately ambiguous wording.

What of the various scholars writing on or referred to in the Jesus Blog taking the use of ego eimi in Mark as indicating a far higher Christology than is normally associated with that gospel? I think that is a stretch, and a stretch too far. It is true that a recurring theme in Mark is that the apostles are completely missing the point of Jesus’ sayings and actions, but in expounding that, Mark is not using clever uses of ambiguous words, but parables and metaphors. It is a completely different technique.

The use of what is, on face value, merely the statement “I am” to designate godly status is one which would only potentially be valid if there were substantial other evidence that what was being set up in the wider context was a theophany, and while I was impressed by the argument that Jesus walking on the sea and stilling the waves does give that wider context, I think it falls short of establishing a sufficient probability. That way leads far too easily to seeing every use of ego eimi (and there are a LOT of those, many of which don’t refer to either God or Jesus) as theophanies.

We might even start seeing this as a theophany!

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In passing, eh’yeh asher eh’yey, I am that I am,  is perhaps the strangest thing identified as “the name of God”. It is echoed, however, in “He who is” (and “She who is” in Elizabeth Johnson’s book). I am not convinced that I can, in fact, see it as that – the usage in Exodus would, therefore, be a one-off, a singular usage not to be repeated and certainly not able to be echoed in John or Mark with that significance. I cannot, for instance, contemplate using it “to His face, if I was faced with Him in all His Glory”. It just doesn’t work as a name. As an avoidance of any naming in Exodus, however, yes…

Mythicists and bad arguments

There have been a few exchanges on facebook between James McGrath, whose blog “Exploring our Matrix” is justly one of the most celebrated Christian blogs, and Laurence Moran, who blogs at “Sandwalk” occasioned by a blog post by Jerry Coyne commenting on a recent BBC poll indicating that 40% of Britons don’t think there was a historical Jesus. There seems to be, to say the least, a failure of meeting of minds. The link to the Sandwalk blog incorporates some of that.

Coyne, supported by Moran, is of the opinion that there really is no persuasive evidence for Jesus, so the 40% of my countrymen who seem to think that Jesus never existed are on sound ground.

This rests on four foundations, firstly the fact that there is no plausible historical evidence for Jesus outside the Bible; references in Josephus are discounted as forged. Well, there are two references to Jesus in Josephus, in book 18, chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities of the Jews, and in book 20, chapter 9, 1. The first of these is without much doubt partially forged, in that at some point a Christian scribe has added some wording. Scholars vary as to how much wording has been added; those who wish to see the evidence as weak tend to go further than the scholars and consider that if any of the statement is inauthentic, the whole can be discounted, which very few current scholars would agree with.

However, those seeing the evidence as weak generally go on either to ignore the second or to claim (against virtually all scholarship at any point) that it is also a forgery. This is, I think, an untenable position for a serious historian; the second quotation thus establishes the existence of Jesus as the brother of James, about whom Josephus writes at some length. It does not, however, give any other detail about Jesus. Nor do the various references in Roman historians to the early Christians, noted as being a problem from the reign of Nero onward in Rome and Asia Minor, as the mythicists are keen to point out.

They also tend to say that the Romans were assiduous record keepers and nothing about Jesus has been found in Roman records. This is a non-argument, as nothing about any other Palestinian Jew of the period has been found in Roman records either. They may have kept a lot of records, but almost none of them have survived!

The second foundation is to dismiss everything written in the Bible as being without historical value. Generally, this revolves around an attack on the Gospels as written at the least some tens of years after Jesus’ given lifetime and on some accounts as much as 100 years later (an extreme dating for the Fourth Gospel); some further stretch the point and attribute a second or third century date, on the basis that there probably are second and third century alterations to the texts.

In doing so, they tend to ignore the fact that the genuine 7 Pauline letters are virtually incontrovertibly dated to between 40 and 45 for the earliest and 60-65 for the latest, or to dismiss them as having little detail of Jesus’ actual life. That second fact is entirely correct; Paul is depressingly (for a biblical historian) disposed to ignore what Jesus actually said and did in favour of writing about his importance for people at the time of writing.

The snag there is that Paul not only confirms (and is confirmed by) Josephus in referring to James as brother of Jesus, but he also reports a number of pre-existing traditions about Jesus, notably including that he was crucified by the Romans and is worshiped as Lord, this within 10 to 15 years of the date of his death. He is plainly joining what is already a well-established community of believers at that point.

The third foundation is to attack the blatant failures of historical accuracy (such as the census of Quirinius, which could not have had the effect claimed nor have been at the time specified) and the presence of supernatural events (miracles) as entirely removing any credibility from the Gospel accounts. I don’t think we can do that (and neither do 99+% of historians). Certainly, as Dr. McGrath strives hard to point out, historians are going to discount any report involving a miracle (or, indeed, any supernatural event at all) as being too unlikely ever to be capable of historical proof.

(As an aside there, I would note that a historian of thought would not discount those aspects of the gospels, but a historian of thought is merely cataloging what people were thinking and not what actually happened.)

Does the presence of miracles invalidate the Gospels as a source of other material? Not for an historian, as otherwise almost all ancient writers of history would need to be discounted in their entirety, most of them being entirely willing to accept supernatural events or beings as part of history. Neither does some particular factual inaccuracy; historians treat all ancient sources with some suspicion, and are keen to cross check them against other evidence, if there is any. On the other hand, for a source where there is no other evidence one way or another, an historian will tend cautiously to accept that factual claims may be true. Despite the best endeavours of some mythicists to argue that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (i.e. that events did not happen), this is not historical technique.

The fourth foundation, and that which seems to be a stumbling block in the discussions I link to, is the argument that the existence of an historical person called Jesus who in fact did not turn water into wine or rise from the dead, or say quite a lot of the things he is reported to have said (if we believe the Jesus Seminar who, to be fair, are not too much more sceptical than the bulk of NT scholars) would not be sufficient to say that there was an historical Jesus. The only way you can say that there was an historical Jesus, according to this argument, is if he actually was God incarnate, claimed to be the Son of God, performed miracles and rose from the dead. Dr. McGrath entirely correctly points out that historians could never say that any of these things was an historical fact, and indeed my reading of him for some years indicates to me that he probably thinks that supernatural causes did not operate in the first century any more than they operate today, which is to say that they very probably never did operate.

The argument is very much that in order to say there was an historical Jesus, the person identified must have substantial identity to the Jesus described in the Bible, and if you cannot say that, you cannot say that there was an historical Jesus. This is, it seems to me, a foolish argument. We do not, for instance, say that because it was said of Augustus Caesar that he was son of God and God, and that he was miraculously conceived, then there was no historical Augustus Caesar. Equally, we do not say that because a lot of people have seen Elvis after the date of his death, then Elvis never existed. We equally do not say that as (say) ancient historians writing of a battle must be discounted in total because they got the date of the battle wrong some years after the event (or because it was not, according to archaeological evidence, the unmitigated success which the winning side claimed, or because the numbers of troops involved prove to have been massively inflated).

Any suggestion these days that there was no historical Jesus, on whom the stories in the New Testament were based, is, frankly, an insult to generations of scholars, many of them atheist, agnostic or non-Christian, who have spent years of study piecing together an account of a real person who was called Jesus and was crucified by the Romans in around the year 30. It cannot be argued that they were serving an apologetic end, either, as generally their efforts to use historical method have resulted in howls of protest from conservative believers and often loss of position or reputation. Yes, it can be argued that different scholars see different patterns in the evidence, some emphasising the Jewish wisdom teacher, some the mystic, some the social radical, some the apocalyptic prophet. Actually, it is entirely possible for all of those to be aspects of one complex personality.

The situation is, I think, rather well summed up in this article; in particular I share the embarrassment of the author that as many as 40% of my fellow countrymen are so badly historically educated. However, I do not share the opinion that Christianity must fail completely if it could be shown that there were no historical Jesus (any more than Buddhism would fail if it could be shown there was no historical Gautama Buddha). Christianity, to my mind, rests far more on the actual experience of Christians, and Christians experience Jesus here and now – and it is not really relevant to the survival of the religion how exactly it is that they experience Jesus. I could certainly live with a determination that there was in fact no historical Jesus myself!

The thing is, if there in fact were no historical Jesus, there would have had to be an invention of Jesus. Richard Carrier (who is notable as being one of only two or three mythicists with advanced degrees which actually relate to the area) has addressed this issue in a talk.

Carrier is superficially plausible in this talk; his quantity of study time definitely shows. However, we must remember that in that video he is making a case, not presenting a dispassionate view. I ought, I suppose, to be more impressed with Carrier – I do not, for instance, have any relevant degrees myself. However, I am a retired lawyer, and making, countering and assessing arguments is part of the professional expertise of a lawyer.

Starting with Philo is particularly powerful, as Philo’s writings, in my view, have to have been the basis of the thinking of the author of the Fourth Gospel; the author was taking a set of concepts which Philo developed and applying those to the person of Jesus. That said, Philo does not, of course, identify his angelic figure as being called “Jesus”, he merely refers to a passage from Zechariah which deals with a high priest called Joshua (granted, that is another anglicisation of the Hebrew form of Yeshua).

I am much less impressed with the collection of dying and resurrecting gods which Carrier outlines. These are in every case fertility gods, representing the cycle of the seasons with rebirth in spring and death in winter; this is a motif strikingly lacking from anything in the New Testament, and suggestions that the Osiris cult may have involved personal salvation may well be arguing that result is cause and vice versa, as I see no evidence that this tendency existed in Osiris cults before the late first century. I also see no significant evidence that the cults of these gods involved a real historical incarnation, at least not before the concept was current in the nascent Christianity.

Where his argument is strongest, however, is in the entirely correct observation that the earliest witness, Paul, does not talk about details of Jesus’ life, merely his death. This is, to my mind, the biggest single argument against the process suggested by Carrier. Yes, there was an incentive to revitalise Judaism following the destruction of the Temple (which, I point out, occurred some years after Paul’s death), but were you trying to do this, you would not choose as an historical referent someone who would be likely to be remembered by people still alive, and you would definitely not choose someone about whom the main historical fact claimed was that he had been crucified by the Romans. That fact by itself negated any claims of being the messiah for mainstream Judaism (and still does); reference to the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah ignores the fact that in Judaism before and since, those passages were not seen as being messianic and referred to the nation of Israel as a whole; the messianic connection was made by followers of Jesus looking for foreshadowings in previous scripture (and yes, I accept Carrier’s statement that the early followers were doing a form of pesher on the scriptures with that in mind). As Paul says on more than one occasion, this is a stumbling block to Jews.

I think it is worth mentioning here that an experienced advocate will use ridicule (as Moran does with this reference to Humpty Dumpty and Carrier does with his reference to space aliens) in only two circumstances (as otherwise he weakens his argument). The first is where he really does not have a strong case and is grasping at straws. The second is where he is insulting the intelligence of his audience, as I note often occurs (and fairly frequently works) in jury trials. Personally, I do not appreciate having my intelligence insulted.

There is a further major point, however, which Carrier completely ignores. To start with, as James McGrath points out, the historical move which is apparent from careful study of the New Testament documents is actually from an historical figure (albeit one worshiped from a very early stage) to a more divine, cosmic one, and not from angel to historical figure. Granted, the earliest writer, Paul, talks almost exclusively about the significance of Jesus as a cosmic figure rather than as an historical person, but this is relatively quickly corrected by the three synoptic gospels, or at least by the materials used by the evangelists to construct their writings, which may well have predated Paul.

As I mention above, supernatural claims, such as divine status and miraculous birth, were often attributed to historical figures such as Augustus and his successor emperors. Alexander the Great was a notable earlier example, and some earlier Greek healers who were probably historical were credited with miraculous healings. So too in Judaism were a number of early Rabbis (such as Eliezar and Honi the Circle Drawer) credited with miracles. The mindset of the time demanded that great men were not like common beings, but had something of the divine about them, and this resulted in such stories. Indeed, that mindset has not completely left us, as witness Elvis still being alive according to some!

This is a known, natural progression. I would therefore choose this as a probable mechanism over any suggestion from Carrier that a pre-existing godlike figure was alleged without any historical basis to have existed for a time in first century Palestine. That, however, raises another issue. How is it that a relatively insignificant Jewish carpenter’s son, killed as, in effect, a terrorist, started having this kind of story told about him within at the outside ten years of his death, and more probably during his lifetime?

The only viable answer to that question which I can see is that there was indeed an historical Jesus, and that he was an entirely exceptional man, capable of inspiring remarkable devotion among his followers. Yes, not everything which was later written about him is historically true, and not everything which he is claimed to have said is at all likely actually to have passed his lips, but he must have been unique (and he became more unique in the hearts and minds of his followers over the next 350 years to the point at which the Roman Empire became Christian).

And that brings me to my last point. Carrier refers to Cargo Cults as a reference for how strange beliefs can arise; I find that wholly unconvincing. However, within my lifetime there has been a Jewish Rabbi who became hailed as “King Messiah” by his followers, and still is after his death, with a “second coming” anticipated by some; I refer of course to the Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I consider him a far better parallel for how a Jewish messiah figure can arise and gain a large following which persists after his death. The Rebbe was indeed an entirely exceptional man, and had he lived in the first century, I have little doubt that he would be said to have performed many miracles. In point of fact, he IS said to have performed miracles. He is also said to have pre-existed his mortal lifetime.

None of this means that Rebbe Schneerson was not a real historical person.

The trouble with the arguments of the mythicists is that they are just that, arguments. They have to be seen as you would view the statements of counsel for the prosecution (or defence) in a trial; they make the best case they can for their chosen position. In a trial, you always have the adversarial point of view presented, and must then make up your mind whether one or the other is correct, or whether the truth actually lies somewhere between the two. I should therefore point out that what I write here is not the case for the other side; neither are the posts of James McGrath  I link to or the whole book on the topic written by Bart Ehrman (who is neither a Christian nor, indeed, a believer). All three of us are weighing the evidence on both sides and attempting to reach a measured conclusion; the case for the other side is that of those who claim that everything in the Gospels is historical, of which you can find many.


Loyalty to a different Kingdom

Bo Sanders has provocatively titled a post “There is no Kingdom of God”. A man after my own heart – I like provocative titles. Watch the video – it’s only 8 minutes, and he makes a lot of really good points, not all of which I repeat here.

The problem he sees is that the term doesn’t translate “basilea tou Theou” well for a modern audience (and I might suggest particularly one in the States, which is a Republic).

The thing is, the use of the term, which literally means something more like “Empire of God” or “Imperial rule of God” was a direct subversion of the term “basilea tou Romes”, i.e. the Empire of Rome. The basilea tou Theou was completely unlike the Roman Empire, of course, and the identical formulation there was designed to accentuate the difference.

At the time of the earliest English translations, “Kingdom of God” was, I think, actually a fairly good translation, because at the time England was a Kingdom with a King who had some imperial pretensions and was very nearly an absolute monarch, as the Roman Emperors were; the counterpoint still worked and had some subversive power. It doesn’t work in England nearly as well these days, as the monarchy has become a nearly powerless constitutional monarchy and the fount of power is Parliament, and it works even less well in the United States, where citizens don’t even live under a nominal monarchy or empire.

Granted, it could well be argued that the USA is a functional Empire, with places ruled but without a say in government and a number of “client states” which are nominally independent but in effect operate as instructed by America.The trouble is, most of the population probably don’t believe that to be the case.

I have seen and heard people using other terms, and “commonwealth” is not uncommon – the trouble is, most of these fail to give the subversive element as they themselves have unhelpful baggage (in the case of “commonwealth” it is specifically the historic use of the term for democracies, and a democracy, I would argue, is significantly closer to a system of organising ourselves which Jesus might not want to subvert). Of those which Bo mentions, “Government” is possibly my favorite, particularly as “Government” already has a fair amount of negative baggage associated, as “basilea” did in the first century.

What about the hyphenated terms? Sadly, I don’t like “kin-dom” as it sounds rather twee, although it is clever; “un-kingdom” and “anti-empire” seem to me too direct, lacking the subversive element which was present in the original use of the common term for the Roman oppression, the sense of direct opposition “An Empire but totally unlike the existing Empire”. However, any of these might do – certainly if an unfamiliar term is used, it will alert us to the fact that “Kingdom” needs a bit more understanding.

I might, for instance, suggest once in a while slipping in “the Anarchy of God” for the shock effect – it lacks the sense of subversion, but certainly wakes one up to the fact that Jesus’ basilea is not a top down autocracy. I think he might have quite liked Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about how (not to) organise a state!

On the whole, though, I rather favour trying out “Nation of God”. There’s an awful lot to subvert in our concepts of nation these days;for the nation to which we belong to include axiomatically all people (“no Jew nor Greek…”, the hated Samaritan and the traditional enemy Syrophonecian) is, I think, jarring enough to gain some really good traction, at least until we become over-used to it. It certainly puts a new light on our reluctance to welcome refugees… It also echoes the situation of the Israelites as the People of God, so bursting out of all previously traditional markers for who is in and who is out, as was necessary to include the Gentiles, is doubly accentuated.

Also, and I think particularly in the States, it’s the principal thing to which loyalty is regularly claimed over and above loyalty to God. We regularly discuss whether we can trust a politician whose principal loyalty is to his or her concept of God, possibly to the exclusion of loyalty to our hugely restricted view of nation. Early Christians regularly suffered martyrdom for exactly this reason – they refused to worship Caesar, which was seen as being traitorous.

What price do we pay for our oaths of allegiance, our oaths on taking office?

Little faith

In small group last week, we were looking at Matthew 14:22-33, which is the story of Jesus walking across the rough waters of the Sea of Galilee to the apostles in their boat, Peter asking Jesus to call him to walk on water, and Peter’s limited success. Limited in that while it initially worked, Peter became frightened and began to sink, and needed rescuing.

I commented that I had difficulty with this passage, as I could not put myself into Peter’s position. Asked why, I said I didn’t believe in the supernatural. There was a silence, and then someone said “But, you’re a Christian?” Others chipped in, and the moment passed, but I felt I hadn’t dealt with this well; in addition, I notice that we’re going to be looking specifically at the question of belief and faith next week. I think it worth clarifying the position.

Accurately, I don’t believe in physical miracles, that is to say of the “walking on water” or “water into wine” variety. Healings and exorcisms are a different matter; I have seen cures through faith, and have talked to other people’s demons as well as my own (and you should read that very metaphorically!). Communications with God are also very much another matter, including tangible apparitions. I don’t think anything physical is actually happening in these; what is happening is changes in people’s consciousnesses and the results of that, so far as I’m concerned.

Against that, I don’t actually disbelieve miracle stories as such. As miracles are, by definition, exceptionally unlikely events, I would not expect the normal rules of how things work necessarily to apply to them if they did happen, and so the presumption that everything always works along naturalistic lines would be too strong – it definitely works along naturalistic lines almost always, but the absolute statement is one which I would think it foolish to make.  I might like to be able to believe in miracles the way many of those in my faith community do, but I can’t. The nearest I can get is suspension of disbelief, an acceptance that maybe, just maybe, things will not be the way every ounce of my rational thinking says it will be.

Thus, in Peter’s position, if I stepped out of the boat I would with huge confidence expect to sink.

But that isn’t the only reason why I couldn’t put myself in Peter’s position. As someone else noted in the group, there was no obvious reason for Peter to walk on water. From Peter’s point of view, he was putting himself in danger in order that God could save him miraculously, and in Matthew 4:1-17 we have seen Jesus tempted. Note particularly verses 5-7, where Jesus is invited to endanger himself and trust in a miracle, and responds that you should not put the Lord to the test. Peter is going completely against this principle. I’ve spent years training myself not to do that, after a certain youthful enthusiasm many years ago – though that never went quite as far as one of those preaching the previous Sunday on the subject, who did actually try to walk on water…

That said, I have occasionally hoped for a miracle without any belief that one would occur, but only when every other avenue was closed to me, and only a miracle would suffice. On a very few occasions, things have, to my amazement, worked out – not always in any way which I might have asked for, but worked out nonetheless. I can’t, however, say that any of those required a physical miracle, though they have certainly required psychological ones more than once.

The thing I’ve increasingly come to recognise as I’ve studied scripture over the years is that the real message of the miraculous stories is not in the fact that a miracle has occurred, it’s something else, a deeper message which can be found (and sometimes more than one). I don’t need to believe in the occurrence of the miracle to see the deeper message. In this case it’s that one should have absolute trust in Jesus; once Peter’s trust faltered, he was in trouble.

For me, indeed, miracles which just show that Jesus (or Peter, or Paul) was something really special don’t do the job they were supposed to. Rowan Atkinson has an extremely funny satire on this attitude on You Tube. I hope readers will see this not as lampooning Jesus, but as lampooning the attitude of some, at least, of his followers. I’ve done enough studying to know that a large number of famous people of the first century and before (and a few after that) had miracle stories attached to them; the New Testament is not unique or even particularly unusual in attributing miracles to its leading characters, and (for instance) Alexander the Great, Hippocrates and Augustus Caesar have such stories, as do quite a few rabbis of the first to fourth centuries, such as Eliezer and Honi the Circle Drawer. If I accept miracles in the New Testament, I have no way of rejecting them in (for instance) the Talmud, or the Koran. Those in the Gospels, at least, do have messages beyond just “this was a very important man whom you should pay attention to” – and I don’t need miracle stories to pay attention to Jesus.

Indeed, going back to the story, if I were in that boat on the sea of Galilee and rather than asking to walk out to Jesus, Jesus asked me to step out of the boat, I would probably do that. I would expect to sink, but hope not to – and in any event trust that what he asked me to do was the right thing. Even if I drowned.

I say “probably”. I am only too conscious of the fact that I have other allegiances as well as to God and Jesus which, at least to date, I have not been willing to set aside and follow the Great Commandments to the letter, or the injunction to the rich young man. (I don’t qualify as rich by the standards of my immediate society, but by world standards there’s no doubt of it). My other allegiances are to my wife and family, and unlike the disciples, I balk at leaving them in order to follow Jesus.

But, to date, all I have is scriptural statements. If I were to have a personal message? I don’t know. I’d certainly argue, taking my cue from plenty of Biblical figures from Abraham onwards, but might obey nonetheless.

So, may be I can put myself in Peter’s shoes (at least when they were dry) after all. I feel the statement “Oh ye of little faith” could be directed squarely at me. As I’ve blogged before, maybe that makes me merely an aspiring Christian, or a not-very-good Christian. But I think, for some value of “Christian”, that’s what I am.

Giving it away

Small groups at my church are looking at Acts 2:43-47 over the course of four weeks: 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage, it seems to me, holds out a picture of the early church in Jerusalem as the ideal of how we should live as Christians, and indeed the themes for these four weeks are along those lines.

However, it gives me a problem; I do not hold my property or income in common with others (well, apart from my wife and, before they left home, my children). I will grant that the way the passage is being presented, it is not arguing that we should actually be forming a communist group, but that is the way it reads if you take it reasonably literally, and I do not see any reason not to take it literally.

In particular, I note that shortly after this passage is the tale of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11), in which Ananias sells a plot of land, but gives only part of the proceeds, with his wife’s knowledge, to the community; both of them are struck dead when confronted by Peter. Now, the immediate response when I raised this argument with a group member who is considerably more conservative and literalistic than I am myself was that the fault of Ananias and Saphira was lying to the community and representing that they had paid in the whole of the proceeds (which is certainly what Peter reproaches them with, but is not apparent from the account of what they actually did), and that we should not take either passage as advocating communistic living, but only considerable generosity.

I could make the same argument myself, and I have, over many years, but it doesn’t seem to me to be more than an excuse for not living fully into the Christian life. Granted, I have a great sympathy with Maya Angelou’s celebrated comment “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” This is a place where I fall down, and am likely to keep falling down.

It seems to me entirely in line with Jesus’ teaching as we know it: the story of the rich young man which appears in all the synoptic gospels ends in him going away saddened because he is not going to sell all he possesses and give the proceeds to the poor.

That said, I don’t think my church, or any other church I know of, is actually going to be doing this (and not just the person who downplayed my argument). Indeed, aside from a few notable individuals such as St. Francis, it doesn’t seem to have been the norm except in the very early church – and I strongly suspect the reason is that it isn’t actually viable. After all, we find in Romans 15:25-28 that Paul is taking a subscription to the Jerusalem church, and I can’t help thinking this might be because they ran out of money…

I’ve no taste for being the only person around doing this, quite apart from the fact that as things are, it would land me too on the list of those asking for charity (or, at least, State support as due to my health I couldn’t now expect to be able to support myself by my own labour), nor for being one of a small number who do it, landing them communally in the same position. I do wonder, however, how much that is real pragmatism and how much a frantic wiggling to avoid the consequences of really following Jesus.

Could a communitarian ethos work in a wider sense, I wonder? Just to push the pragmatic view a bit more, however, I can’t find an example of a completely communitarian society of substantial size anywhere. The countries where communism has been tried are object examples of failure (though, to be fair, none of them has actually achieved a truly communitarian society – the vast majority of them look like something between dictatorships and oligarchies). Note that when I say “failure” there, I am not talking of measures of success such as gross national product, national or individual wealth or income; the failures have been in not providing a free society and in not producing a system in which everyone is provided for “according to their needs” and is reasonably content.

I do know of a reasonably substantial number of small groups which have seemed to operate the communitarian principle with some success (not, of course, material or monetary success, but those are not only not relevant to the objective but arguably completely contrary to it), but those seem to rely partly on being small and partly on operating within a larger society which works on a market economy basis, often by accepting social payments, or by having a backer who does not operate by these rules and supports the community from excess income. I do note that the model for the slightly later church seems to have been groups supported by such rich backers, and it seems to have persisted where communitarian living has in general not.

The nearest to examples of success I can find are social democratic countries, in particular the Scandinavian ones, but there seem to me problems there: some have taken steps back from egalitarianism recently and reduced welfare spending on the basis that their welfare states were proving unsupportable (and I suspect globalisation to be the main culprit; it is difficult to maintain a welfare state when in direct competition with capitalist states operating wage slavery systems, and they worked much better before globalisation really took off), and also the populations do not actually seem to be as content as one would hope – the suicide rates, for instance, seem rather high, as do incidences of depression.

There is, however, an aspect I have not yet considered, and this is very much a feature of the story of the rich young man. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matt. 19:21-22). There is a great freedom in letting go of an attachment to worldly possessions and wealth, both of which can easily obsess the mind to the exclusion of any kind of spirituality, and even just enjoying life; I know this not because I’ve ever voluntarily given away all or even most of my possessions, but because circumstances took them away for a time, during which I had an estimated “net worth” which was substantially negative and no reasonable prospect of employment due to illness. Now that I again have a positive net worth, can actually work again to a limited extent and have a modest but adequate pension income, I am, I think, on the right side of a paradigm change with respect to money and possessions.

I grant that giving away everything you have is a draconian way of achieving that freedom, but it may, I think, be the only option for some of us, and I think the rich young man saw that, and knew himself unable to take that step.

Against all this pragmatism, however, is the bare fact that Jesus consistently spoke against money and possessions and in favour of leaving everything and following him. That at least makes it an objective to be aimed towards, even if it’s an unattainable ideal. There is within me an urge to just believe and do, and trust that the outcome will be good, but it remains balanced by a reluctance to take a step when every indication is that it would be a disaster.

With Maya Angelou, the best I can say is that I’m working at it.

Paul and the three r’s

I’ve now listened to the introductory talk to Homebrewed Christianity’s new High Gravity class “Paul, Rupture, Revelation, Revolution” (£20 well spent, to my mind!) a couple of times and watched the live stream of the session on Jacob Taubes “The Political Theology of Paul”.

And I’m feeling oppressed, as Tripp Fuller suggests Daniel Kirk (author of “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”) might be doing in the introductory talk. Actually, I’m feeling oppressed by Tripp as well as by Daniel, courtesy of some remarks about liberals and progressives and a lampoon of Borg and Crossan (hey, I’m a liberal, I’m going to like them!), and by Taubes due to remarks he makes about liberals. Tripp is hugely engaging when he goes off on one of this enthusiastic excurses, but I can’t go all the way with him. Assuming, that is, that he is not just playing a part (as I know he is well able to do). He may just be being jocular or provocative, or indulging an ongoing contest with Pete, but the repetition makes it difficult for me to treat it as just jocular. Perhaps, however, he is establishing a thesis to set against the antithesis of Pete, Taubes, Badiou and Zizek?

The thing is, I’m targeted by the term “liberal”. I really have little option about being identified as a theological liberal, progressive in at least some senses, with a radical edge (happily, no-one said anything nasty about radicals). The thing is, this is because I interpret scripture in a way typically seen as “liberal” and, to be fair, that’s the best description of my political stance in the UK as well, although it wouldn’t do in the States, where I’d probably be regarded as alarmingly leftist.

I don’t, for instance, consider that a physical resurrection is a remotely likely occurrence, not only on the grounds that biology and physics militate against anything like that happening (I’m methodologically if not quite ontologically naturalistic) but also on the basis that, wearing my hat as a retired lawyer and treating the gospel accounts as eyewitness, the conclusion I arrive at is that what they report experiencing is overwhelmingly likely to have been a set of apparitions. It’s possible that some of those may have been tangible apparitions, but I’ve experienced a tangible apparition (of Jesus) myself in circumstances in which I’m pretty confident there was no material body present – apart from my own. Daniel and Tripp both talked as if belief in this is really important. The best I can deliver in response is to say that I can’t absolutely exclude the possibility that their view is correct, but I consider it very unlikely – hardly a basis for “faith”!

I don’t see this kind of belief as important. I ask myself what it would mean to me for some random person to resurrect in circumstances in which the reports were incontrovertible, and whether there would be any difference between that meaning to me and the one resulting from my acceptance that there were apparitions. The answer is, basically “no”. I understand by resurrection a concept which is wider than any reanimation and which can apply to things other than people – although to them as well. After all, I’ve been resurrected in a sense myself (I spent some years severely clinically depressed, and when that lifted, I definitely felt “returned from the dead”). Similarly it makes no difference to me whether other physical miracles actually happened or whether that is just how the people of the day experienced them subjectively and incorporated them into their thinking. As Pete says, these are “radically subjective experiences”.

That is, in fact, not the limit of my theological liberalism. While, as a result of personal experience (of the peak unitive mystical variety) I tend to think that that-which-is-God is real (and immanent, and something akin to panentheist even if this is not quite an adequate description), I can similarly entertain the idea that the only place in which God is actually ever present is in the concept-space of my mind and those of others. (Possibly, it is only in the concept-spaces of thinking entities that anything which can reasonably be regarded as non-material actually exists, granted that what is material is in terms of current science not nearly so material as it appears – materiality is just another illusion, albeit one which we would be foolish to act against.) I am not even confident that regarding God as a “person” represents the ultimate truth of the matter, but I find that God can be and is sometimes experienced as a person.

I do not need God to be in Godself anything more than that. Similarly, for my devotion to Jesus to be operative, I do not need him to have worked any miracles, risen from the dead or have done anything more than have prophesied against the power structures of his day and laid down some principles which I can aspire to as an ideal but never meet`. As I demonstrated in some years of arguing Christianity against a set of very vocal atheists, this means that I can often talk to atheists without the need to argue any claim which is impossible for them to accept.

Granted, I have a permanent problem talking with anyone with a confirmed supernatural theist viewpoint, which probably includes Daniel, may include Tripp and definitely includes Paul. The nearest I can come to accepting this is to avoid actual dogmatism that that-which-is-God is not as they conceive Godself to be. Even if the resultant expectation that miracles will happen on a daily basis if you just believe strongly enough that they will is, to me,  in fact false, I can acknowledge that there are some provable advantages in adopting that mindset – though I do find that difficult to adopt with any deep conviction. My hope there is a long way short of confidence in things unseen.

I am, however, entirely on board with both Tripp’s and Peter Rollins’ attitude that it is pointless just to play with concepts and come to some compromises with the structures of the day (and I mention that in my experience, conservative and evangelical churches are just as guilty of this as are “liberal” or “progressive” ones). To my mind, both Jesus and Paul (who I admit I have not yet loved, although he grows on me) laid down some very radical principles on which they expected followers of Jesus/Christ to operate, and which are entirely inconsistent with the current wisdom of the world and its power structures, just as they were at the time they were teaching. I am as a result someone whose aims and priorities are politically and economically wholly out of line with those of my times, and this is what might allow me to lay claim to the title “radical” – unlike the portrait of liberals painted by Tripp and Taubes, I accept that I am called on to follow, and to act as nearly as possible in accordance with those radical principles. I may not be very good at it, but am not deceived by the economic and political orthodoxies.

Intellectual acceptance, in my book, is nothing like what is meant in the scriptures by “faith”, and it is insufficient to found anything. What is needed is action – it is implausible to claim that you actually believe something unless your actions speak to that, unless the ideas inhabiting your conscious concept space and which you voice actually produce your actions, unless the transcendent collapses into the immanent, much as a probability density collapses into something observable in quantum physics. Daniel refers to this from 2 Corinthians, in which Paul talks of observing actions not words.

But where does that leave us with our three authors? Taubes was Jewish, and quoted with some approval Nietzsche’s flaming criticism of Jesus; Badiou and Zizek are both atheists, and indeed Badiou adverts in his introduction to the fact that he just does not believe in the major facts which Paul very clearly did believe and which allowed Paul to challenge the structures and thinking of the day, and later has an excursus arguing that Paul was antagonistic to arguing from actual evidence in a logical way. Pete mentions the fascination of the atheists with the fact that Paul clearly “really believed” – how on earth can they appropriate any of Paul’s thinking without some similar belief of their own? Much is made in the introductory talk and discussion of Paul’s insistence that faith in/of Christ is the key to all of his thinking, the key to any breaking of the assumptions of Jewish exceptionalism on the one hand and Roman Imperialism on the other. How do the atheists attempt some form of faith? Come to that, how do I attempt it, given that what I can state I believe beyond reasonable doubt is massively short of what Daniel, or (apparently) Tripp, or Paul, or Jesus believed?

Are we looking here at justification not by faith in Christ, but along with some of the new Perspective on Paul writers, justification by the faithfulness of Christ (which can then be appropriated by following Him without, perhaps, the need to possess that faith yourself)?

To be entirely honest, Taubes book and what I have to date read of Badiou’s both give me the appearance of playing with concepts, of appropriating some ideas and structures from Paul and subverting them to their own agendas, reading them in the light of a much different basic narrative, much as Taubes (quoting Nietzsche) complains Christian authors did reading the whole Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ, down to any mention of a wooden object (and some non-wooden ones) being taken as a reference to the cross. But then, from some standpoint what I have written about my own approaches above may seem to some to be a similar exercise – I am indeed accommodating how I think about these concepts to an overriding approach of naturalism, even if not to an acceptance of power structures and market economics.

That said, as Taubes points out, neither Jesus nor Paul was entirely innocent in reinterpreting the Hebrew scriptures against what anyone else in the time would have regarded as their meaning.

Perhaps Pete Rollins is on track, when he says that what he is interested in is not what Paul believed, but what he was doing in what he believed (to paraphrase). I can regard something as a narrative which it is open for me to live into irrespective of whether the narrative is factually based; “I do not know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.  Badiou, indeed, talks of truth revealed in a rupture, possibly acknowledging that he accepts a truth being revealed here, athough Badiou’s concept of “truth” is nonstandard, and I am not convinced I have yet grasped it. But then, Badiou flatly describes the resurrection as a lie.

Is it, perhaps, the case that whereas Tripp criticises people in churches who talk of faith in Christ but act as worshippers of Mammon (and I heartily agree), we are here looking at people who talk atheist but act like followers of Christ? After all, I know quite a few atheists who act Catholic!

The new pharisees?

Jesus is presented throughout the gospels as a healer, but some of his most controversial healings (such as those in Luke 5:20 and Luke 7:48) involve him stating that someone’s sins are forgiven.

Now, my scientific rationalist head tells me that this is a wonderful way of healing an illness which is psychosomatic. As can be seen in, for instance, John 9:3, the thinking of the day, at least among the religious conservatives, was that any ailment was a divine punishment for some transgression, either of the individual or his forbears. This can be seen at length in the book of Job, where Job’s friends go to great lengths to try to work out how Job absolutely must have deserved all the ills with which he was being showered; of course, in the last portion of the book God is seen very explicitly to tell his friends that they are mistaken. However, Job goes against the grain of much of the Hebrew scriptures (as do Ezekiel 18  and substantial portions of Ecclesiastes, for instance Ecc. 8:14 in which the wicked prosper and the good suffer). It is hardly surprising that some of the conservatives of the day ignored these few scriptures in favour of a philosophy whereby you got only what you deserved.

Thus, if an illness were to some extent psychosomatic, with the sufferer convinced that they were being punished for some sin, being told their sins were forgiven could produce an immediate cure. At least, it could if it were believed. Jesus must have spoken with colossal authority and charisma in order for this to work.

Of course, we have little difficulty in accepting that Jesus must have spoken in just this manner, and can remember that he was said not to have performed healings when he went home to Nazareth (Mark 6:4) – it is always more difficult speaking with authority to people who remember you as a child!

However, this was met with howls of protest from the religious conservatives (labelled Scribes and Pharisees in the gospels, although it would be a mistake to consider that this conservative attitude actually typified the Pharisees of the day, still less those of later times), ostensibly because only God had the power to forgive sins. To my mind, however, the protest stemmed from the privilege of the conservatives, who were well off and respected, and saw their position as justified by their exemplary character. What could be more threatening to them than to be told that their wealth and social position was not justified by relieving the suffering of those on whom they smugly looked down?

And yet, this was a thread running through Jesus’ entire ministry. The first were to be last and the last first, the preferred companions were publicans and sinners, even the occasional prostitute or adultress, who were more worthy of heaven than the overtly religious.

Christian theology has tried repeatedly to get a grip on this principle, and has regularly failed. Conventionally, we are justified through faith alone rather than works (although James reminds us that faith without works is dead), but for the most part this has come to mean that we much have the correct intellectual appreciation of how we are, in fact, smugly justified (i.e. we must adhere to a creed or another statement of faith). And, of course, our works show that for all to appreciate…

Which leads me to contemplating the case of Rob Bell. Rob is a hugely gifted communicator, who became a “star” by founding and growing to mecachurch status the Mars Hill congregation in Grandville, Michigan, being much sought after as a visiting preacher and teacher. His “Covered in the Dust of the Rabbi” talk illustrates this . He could preach a two hour sermon to me any day (as reference to the videos I link to here and below indicates he’s very able at), and I doubt I’d look at my watch once. I pointed a Jewish friend of mine at that talk a while ago, and he responded with “boy, is he charismatic!”. Granted, he is not really a theologian, and as I agreed with my friend, the image he paints in that talk is almost certainly not authentic to the period in which Jesus was teaching, as the system of pupils of Rabbis didn’t really develop in the form he talks of until significantly later, so far as documents can reveal. However, the message of the talk is not in the slightest impaired by the fact that it probably isn’t actually historically accurate.

Incidentally, it’s probably worth pointing out that Rob may well be naturally gifted and turbo-charged by the Holy Spirit, but he also puts a huge amount of work into his craft, as another set of videos shows.

Over the last two or three years, however, Rob has been regularly vilified by the evangelical establishment for whom he was once a shining star. The reason, originally, was his book “Love Wins”, in which he has the temerity to suggest that God might actually be powerful and loving enough to not condemn significant numbers of people to endless torment. (I don’t necessarily recommend the book for reading, as it isn’t theologically rigorous and reads like one of Rob’s talks – it would be better read aloud – but there is an audiobook).

Since then, he’s compounded the felony by suggesting that homosexuality is not, in fact, a sin over and above all other sins (which is a picture I tend to get from many evangelical commentators) but an expression of one person’s love for another which should be at the very least accepted. This too is beyond the pale, as we clearly need a new category of publicans and sinners on whom to look down.

This regular condemnation has recently had a resurgence, as Rob now has a prime-time programme on Oprah’s TV network in the
States. As the link I include indicates, whereas most evangelical preachers would cut off their left arm for such an opportunity in (relatively) mainstream TV, rather than the “preaching to the choir” outlets of the regular televangelists, the fact that it is Rob who is doing this is just unacceptable.

I think I see a parallel here (although Rob would probably be uncomfortable at favourable comparison with Jesus). “Love Wins” is actually saying that everyone’s sins will be forgiven (if, indeed, they aren’t already), and his stance on homosexuality is reminiscent of Jesus’ in relation to (for instance) tax collectors. The religious conservatives are again up in arms when a charismatic and authoritative preacher suggests that God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, extends to everyone, and not just the elect few. In this case the complaints are from the increasingly Calvinistic spokesmen for “evangelistic Christianity” rather than the gospel’s “Scribes and Pharisees”.

The Pharisees, it seems, will always be with us, much like the poor.